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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When reached by telephone in early February, Deputy Mayor Steven Langert, who was mayor in 2010 and said in interviews at the time that it was his “personal responsibility to do all I can to ensure the safety” of residents living in the woods, asked a Forward reporter to Google “homelessness” and see how many results came up. On the phone, Langert added that there are homeless in New York and elsewhere, and wondered why such a focus was placed on Lakewood in media coverage.

Meanwhile, the dispute has played out in court. In June 2010, the township committee filed a lawsuit in Superior Court, claiming that the residents of Tent City caused environmental threats and lived in unsanitary conditions.

Two weeks later, lawyers for both sides reached a tentative agreement to shut down the camp and find housing for Tent City residents, with the encampment agreeing not to take in any new residents. But the agreement fell apart. Brigham, who was frequently approached by newly homeless individuals, said he couldn’t keep people out on the street in the cold without a viable alternative. Later that summer, the residents of Tent City sued Ocean County for not providing a homeless shelter; the case was dismissed in May 2011.

Over the next year and a half, various deadlines passed, and promises went unfulfilled.

Even the homeless outreach organization Solutions To End Poverty Soon, contracted by the township to help, found the situation intractable.

“I truly thought it was coming to an end,” said Mike McNeil, STEPS’s executive director. “I know I felt bad… We devoted a lot of time and effort. Sometimes you get that sense that some people just want to stay there. This is the way of life, but it shouldn’t be. This is America.”

In January 2012, Superior Court Judge Joseph Foster ruled that the township could not evict residents from Tent City. He assigned a mediator to help the two sides to come up with a solution, but the matter remains unresolved.

“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding and animosity between the major players,” DasGupta said. “We have always said this is not the way for people to live, but there has to be an alternative. But no alternatives were given.”

The two sides are scheduled to meet again in court in March.


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