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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“It’s squalor at best,” he said. “They are surviving, but barely. And it’s severely affecting the quality of life of residents in the area.”

Lawson said that when he first became chief of police, he reached out to Brigham but was constantly lied to. He said that last year, during Hurricane Sandy, he arranged for a bus to bring residents to a safe evacuation center, but Brigham told the campers not to utilize township resources. “I have no respect for Mr. Brigham,” Lawson said.

Brigham disputed Lawson’s claims and said about 10 or 15 residents did accept offers of shelter at local churches. “His job hinges on the township committee and the Orthodox [community], and he’s got to do what they say,” Brigham said. “I think he’s just doing what his superiors tell him to do.”

Still, Lawson said that on a daily basis he sends officers to check on residents of Tent City.

“You can’t help but sympathize with some of the people disenfranchised, having nowhere else to go,” he said.

Last summer, Brigham was arrested on consecutive days when he cut up tents of people whom he believed were disrupting the encampment and breaking Tent City rules.

A large portion of Tent City’s residents now come from out of state, a point of contention for Akerman. “People make their way down here thinking they’ll have some golden opportunity for them, often when it’s not what they thought it would be,” he said.

Former Lakewood mayor Charles Cunliffe foresaw the potential problems of a burgeoning homeless population years ago. In 2005, Cunliffe tried to persuade the township to create a solution for the homeless. “I implored the (township) committee to stand with me,” Cunliffe said. “I think they were afraid maybe they’d be criticized [for] not being kind and generous.”

Cunliffe reached out to Brigham early in his tenure, but described it as “not positive contact.”

“I think he’s perpetuating a bad lifestyle,” he said, adding that by letting Tent City continue unregulated, “we’re actually perpetuating a bad lifestyle.”

Cunliffe, no longer an elected politician, believed Tent City was a problem the whole county needed to address. “I heard of stories of taxis and police cars from other jurisdictions dropping people off in Lakewood because they know there’s a homeless camp there,” he said. “This is exactly what I was afraid of. I’m sorry we didn’t get enough support in 2005.”

Politicians who remain active in town sought to avoid questions about Tent City. State Senator Robert Singer, who was a township committee member for almost 30 years, did not respond to repeat requests for an interview.


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