Homeless Tent City Meets Suburbia in Orthodox Town

Lakewood, N.J. Struggles to Cope With Poor in Its Midst

Standoff: Lakewood, N.J.’s Orthodox officials and its homeless residents are at odds over the seven-year-old encampment.
nate lavey
Standoff: Lakewood, N.J.’s Orthodox officials and its homeless residents are at odds over the seven-year-old encampment.

By Seth Berkman

Published February 26, 2013, issue of March 01, 2013.
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The fate of Tent City could have an enormous impact on the future of Lakewood, home to 100,000 residents — almost half of whom are Haredi Jews drawn to study at Beth Medrash Govoha, the largest yeshiva in America. Once a winter haven for robber barons like Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller, in decades past, the town had been a small enclave of working-class blacks, whites, Hispanics and secular Jews, but now it is growing faster than any other municipality in the state.

And with the growth comes challenges. In recent years, the struggles facing America’s homeless population have been magnified by the plight of the economy. In cities like Seattle; Sacramento, Calif., and Portland, Ore., local shelters and outreach organizations have been overwhelmed by cases, leading to a proliferation of tent cities.

But suburban homelessness is in some ways an even more intractable problem because there are few alternatives. Lakewood and Ocean County have no permanent shelter, with the closest facilities an hour away or farther in Atlantic City, Trenton, Camden and Newark.

“No town plans for the homeless unless they’re forced to,” said David Smiley, a professor of urban studies at Barnard College. “A tent city is essentially a symbol, of a loss of what’s taken place in the last five years. Low-income populations are now even more stressed.”

Rumu DasGupta, a professor of sociology at Lakewood’s Georgian Court University, said the economic and sociological factors at play raise the stakes tremendously. “So many people feel that their well-being, the well-being of Lakewood, hinges so much on what happens to Tent City,” she said. “The eyes of the world are on us.”

At the corner of Clover Street and Cedar Bridge Avenue in Lakewood is a dirt path that leads into Tent City. Inside is a mix of unsettling images of squalor and strong communal bonds.

During a recent visit, resident Dave Jones was giving a tour to a group of Orthodox boys from a nearby school. The boys, curious about what life was like in Tent City, saw hordes of roosters roaming free and piles of day-old pizza slices stacked a foot high on a picnic table, for anyone to take.

The tents range in size and cleanliness; some are equipped with mattresses and resemble a small studio with such amenities as computers and hot plates. Others have liquor bottles strewn on the floor along with other trash, or not much more than a sleeping bag.


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