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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“Here, you’ve got community,” he said, “a neighborhood, a sense of belonging, a sense of ownership — all these things the average American has out there.”

But life in Tent City also presents a multitude of problems for residents inside and for the rest of the township.

A review of incidents reported by local media since 2007 shows that there have been at least 15 fires in Tent City, six deaths (some due to hypothermia or burns) and four stabbings. Cars have hit several Tent City residents as they left the encampment.

Lakewood police chief Robert Lawson estimated that he has received “close to 350 calls over the last three years or so” about Tent City, a disproportionate number compared with the rest of town, considering the population of the encampment. Lawson said the repeated police visits have caused a strain on his department, which has 117 officers, down from 133 a few years ago — a lack of manpower not taken lightly, considering that Lakewood has had to face other troubling issues, such as a rise in violent gang activity in recent years. Toms River, a neighboring town with more than 90,000 residents, has 150 officers.

Lawson, who has lived in Lakewood for 37 years and been chief of police for six years, said he has received reports of Tent City residents publically intoxicated, urinating in private yards and breaking into yeshivas to steal food from pantries.

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