A few weeks ago, Gary Howard woke up in the middle of the night terrified. In his nightmare, he had been reliving his last day as an employee of Showboat casino. It will be one year on Sept. 1 since he walked out the doors of the casino where he worked for 27 years.
Howard is one of approximately 8,000 people laid off from four casinos in Atlantic City last year when a third of the city’s gaming halls shut their doors.
As the one year “anniversary,” as Howard calls it, of his last day started drawing closer, the nightmares began. The 61-year old has lived in Atlantic City his entire life. His unemployment benefits expired after six months and he had to move out of his home and live with a friend. He has been unsuccessful finding new employment in a city where about 10 percent of the workforce, some 13,500 people, were unemployed in May of this year.
Howard is one of eight photographers being featured in an art gallery that opened last week at the Noyes Art Garage in Atlantic City. The photographers, all laid off casino workers, were asked to take photos that tell their story.
The exhibit will remain on display through Sept. 22.
The art gallery is part of NJ Soul of Hunger, a series of galleries throughout New Jersey that tell the stories of people experiencing hunger through their own lenses. It’s a project of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition and is funded by the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation.
Several of the gallery’s photographers were referred to the project through Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden’s Atlantic City Casino Crisis Response program, a program that started in the fall of 2014 as the wave of closures hit the city to provide assistance to those affected.
Many of the photographers simply used their cell phones to capture images from their daily lives and struggles.
“[Showboat] was my home; that was my family,” said Howard, who is still looking for work. “I was known, I was loved, I was respected. I had purpose. I had a sense of self-worth.”
Rachel Swain, another of the photographers featured in the exhibit, worked at Showboat for 26 years. After losing her job as a porter, she returned to school, becoming a certified home health aide. A testament to the difficulty of finding work in this city, she applied to 16 jobs with no response and watched, desperate, as her unemployment benefits expired.
She finally found work doing housekeeping at AtlantiCare, but at $4 per hour less than what she was making at Showboat and with fewer hours.
“You never expected the casino was going to close. That was my life,” Swain said. She bought a house when she worked for Showboat and now struggles to pay her mortgage.
In the art gallery, one of her pictures is an enlarged photo of a pair of worn shoes.
“Twenty-six years at the casino, and now I can barely afford shoes,” she says.
Jeanetta Warren is a senior case manager and heads Catholic Charities Casino Crisis Response program.
“For people laid off by the casinos it’s not just a financial crisis. It’s a mental crisis,” Warren said. “I hope this exhibit will bring exposure to the people who are suffering and keep this issue in the limelight so that people can get assistance.”
Catholic Charities’ program provides emergency financial assistance with rent, mortgage, food and utilities, and referral services for other needs, such as mental health counseling. Since the fall of 2014, the program has assisted 240 people with $34,000 of assistance.
It’s just a drop in the ocean of need, Warren says. She points to the need for jobs in the region and retraining services so that people can move into different careers after decades of casino work. She sees on a daily basis the mental and emotional toll the job losses have had on people who expected to retire from the casinos and now struggle to find new employment in their 50s and 60s.
Warren nominated several of the clients she worked with to become photographers for the exhibit.
“A lot of people said it was painful,” Jeanetta said of the photography project. “It made them look at their situation and that was hard. A lot of people after they took the picture didn’t want to send it in because it was too much.”
Shakir Abdusallam helped build the Revel casino as a cement mason and worked there as a window cleaner for the two years it remained open. The father of three children now struggles to put food on the table.
In one of his photographs he stands in front of the shuttered Revel, his hands pulling out empty pockets. In a landscape, he shows residual damage from Hurricane Sandy at an ocean pier.
“Me and my wife just brought a new child into this debacle we call the casino crisis,” Abdusallam said. “Somebody has to do something to address this. And it has to be more than the non-profits, because the casinos made a lot of profits.”
Catholic Charities’ Atlantic City Casino Crisis response effort is supported by funds from the Justice for ALL Dinner. All funds from the dinner go toward direct financial assistance for people who are experiencing a crisis. Learn more about the dinner and how to become a sponsor at CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/JFA. To learn more about Catholic Charities’ Atlantic City Crisis program, visit CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/CasinoCrisis.
The Noyes Arts Garage is located at 2200 Fairmount Ave, Atlantic City. Admission is free. For information call 609-626-3805.