Lakewod, N.J. — Shortly after being sworn in for his first term in January, Lakewood’s mayor, Albert Akerman, visited “Tent City,” an encampment of about 100 homeless people living in a densely wooded area of township land — a rare slice of open space in the fastest-growing municipality in New Jersey.
Akerman, an Orthodox Jew originally from the Boro Park section of Brooklyn, described the encampment as “hazardous” and “subhuman” in a recent interview in his office. “It’s gut-wrenching. You can’t dream up Tent City. It’s horrible. Some of the people living there are comfortable, but a lot of them are not,” he said.
Finding better living conditions for these people has proved to be a fruitless endeavor. Akerman entered office embroiled in a seven-year standoff between township officials and residents of Tent City.
Homelessness is not new to Lakewood, in central New Jersey. In years past, a small number of homeless people lived far back in the woods or by railroad tracks, but they remained largely out of sight from the rest of the community. Then, in 2006, Steve Brigham, a local man who had been donating propane to various homeless sites throughout Ocean County, began pitching tents in an undeveloped area in the woods.
Today, from the smoke rising out from the encampment to the site of garbage cans on the side of the road, Tent City cannot be missed when driving on Cedar Bridge Avenue, a heavily traveled county road that connects to the Garden State Parkway and the rest of New Jersey.
Orthodox Jewish residents, predominately Haredi Jews who have recently begun to move into new housing in the area, constantly complain about the air quality, the vandalism of local schools and disruption of car traffic by Tent City residents. From last December to January of this year, there was one death, two stabbings and three fires in the encampment.
The vitriol between the two sides increases with each incident and each passing day, as Tent City residents must sleep outside in below-freezing temperatures, without any prospect of a permanent home, income or medical assistance