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Lakewod, N.J. — Some residents keep gardens or have guard dogs barking at anyone who approaches. Others choose to sit outside, staring blankly, bottles of vodka clutched in their hands. A majority of residents leave in the morning to find work as day laborers in downtown Lakewood and return to eat communal meals around a grill. At night, some residents entertain themselves by betting on cockfights they host deeper in the woods.
Every resident has a winter coat, yet even with proper attire and heat from wood-burning stoves, the chill of the below-freezing temperatures quickly catches hold of fingers and toes.
The encampment includes residents who have struggled with drug addiction or mental illnesses. A few are registered sex offenders. Others have been hit hard by economic struggles, recently and before the recession.
And some have colorful stories. The second resident to live in Tent City was Hermann Winkelmann, a German immigrant who came to Lakewood at 19 and built a small fortune operating businesses in town. Winkelmann’s prized property was a banquet hall that was among the largest on the East Coast, famous for its semblance to a German castle, where for years Lakewood residents held weddings, proms and bar mitzvah receptions.
A mix of bad business investments and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder led to Winkelmann losing his fortune. He died, homeless, on a bus three years ago. Today, the banquet hall, last known as The Chateau Grand, is in ruin, its only inhabitants the deer that are occasionally seen roaming the parking lot.
In the center of the encampment is the Tent City Chapel, where Steve Brigham is often found during the day. A charismatic speaker with the rugged physique of a woodsman, Brigham, 52, often goes by Reverend or Minister Steve. Inside the chapel, the walls are decorated with paintings of Jesus, and a 5-foot wooden cross rests behind the makeshift pulpit. In the corner sits an old church organ. But unlike at most houses of worship, containers of sour cream, cans of Mountain Dew and boxes of Entenmann’s cake are strewn across the floor. Instead of light breaking through stained-glass windows, Brigham uses propane lamps to dispel the darkness.
To Brigham, Tent City provides the best option available for his homeless followers. In shelters, residents are forced into a regimented schedule — “a mass dormitory,” as Brigham described it — where you arrive in the evening and take your belongings and leave in the morning.