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 delays have angered nearby residents. Steve Zaks, who lives a half mile from the encampment, said the township “should have been much more proactive in going to court” to resolve this matter for the residents of the town and of Tent City.

But Brigham does not believe that Akerman is truly intent on helping, based on the mayor’s visit in early January. “He didn’t step out of the car to talk to people to find out their reactions or what their opinions are,” Brigham said. “He just waved.”

Brigham said the Haredi community’s insular nature prevents it from assessing the needs of the entire town and that Akerman is no different from past mayors. In Lakewood, the five members of the township committee choose a mayor. A Va’ad, or council of Haredi leaders, have long held great influence in the election of committee members, as Haredi districts often have up to 30% more voters reporting.

Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg, chairman of the Lakewood Development Corporation and an influential member of the Haredi community, downplayed the charges of favorable Haredi influence. “This is a well-worn generic myth with little basis in reality,” Weisberg wrote in an email. “The facts are that — perhaps unique in the U.S. — Lakewood is a multicultural city where Orthodox residents happen to be the majority (or close to it) of the population. You would expect their concerns to be addressed in a substantive way.”

In years past, residents have also complained that the distribution of new low-income housing has been tilted heavily toward the Haredim, which has long been better organized around civic issues than other groups in town.

MaryAnn Sorensen Allacci, a professor of environmental psychology at the Fashion Institute of Technology, has been an advocate for better low-income housing practices since 2002. She said the town has “archaic housing policies” and that there is a large segment of the population in town living on the fringe of homelessness that is not represented at all, susceptible to excessive rental charges and unfair practices by landlords.

A major factor in Lakewood’s recent growth has been the accessibility of cheap day labor provided by immigrants. These laborers are often reduced to living in Tent City, joining a segment of the population that, Allacci said, township leaders ignore. “They just want them to disappear,” she said.

DasGupta would like to see a permanent facility that provides shelter in two stages: emergency housing for people who have recently become homeless, and transitional housing with access to medical and job service facilities.


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