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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Akerman does not know if his town or even the county can offer a complete solution. Even if a shelter were built, he said, residents would still flock back to Tent City because of the lack of structure and rules in the encampment. “There are advocates out there that say just back off, leave them be,” he said. But Akerman said he would leave the topic alone when “they’re willing to sign on a piece of paper” that would say that if there were a fire and scores of people were killed, “the blood’s on their hands, so I can show that paper to the press the day after.”

Zaks moved to Lakewood around the same time that Tent City opened. He has witnessed the situation getting progressively worse. Zaks said that smoke blowing over from Tent City infiltrates his home and affects his children’s breathing. Recently, he was driving down Cedar Bridge Avenue at night, and a person darted out from Tent City into traffic, causing Zaks to swerve his car to avoid hitting the person.

“If you leave the number of people living there in the woods for that length of time, it’s literally asking for trouble,” Zaks said.

Zaks lives in a neighborhood of predominately Haredi Jews, who make up the majority of housing and new businesses in Lakewood. Advocates for Tent City believe that the Haredi community’s complaints are unjust, considering the amount of expansion and building they’ve done in a town that covers less than 25 square miles.

Residents of Lakewood admit that the area is vastly changing, but they are unsure if the township has really considered the consequences that accompany such a rapid transformation, particularly for those with less social and financial security.

Edith Wolpin, 86, has lived in Lakewood for 63 years. Sheldin Woplin, her husband, died last December and was known as “Mr. Lakewood.” Wolpin said she does not know a lot about the daily struggles in Tent City, but she said the descriptions of the conditions there “absolutely saddens me.”

“What the answer is for them, I have no idea,” she said.

Contact Seth Berkman at berkman@forward.com


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