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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Shortly after being sworn in for his first term in January, Lakewood’s mayor, Albert Akerman, visited “Tent City,” an encampment of about 100 homeless people living in a densely wooded area of township land — a rare slice of open space in the fastest-growing municipality in New Jersey.

Akerman, an Orthodox Jew originally from the Boro Park section of Brooklyn, described the encampment as “hazardous” and “subhuman” in a recent interview in his office. “It’s gut-wrenching. You can’t dream up Tent City. It’s horrible. Some of the people living there are comfortable, but a lot of them are not,” he said.

Finding better living conditions for these people has proved to be a fruitless endeavor. Akerman entered office embroiled in a seven-year standoff between township officials and residents of Tent City.

Homelessness is not new to Lakewood, in central New Jersey. In years past, a small number of homeless people lived far back in the woods or by railroad tracks, but they remained largely out of sight from the rest of the community. Then, in 2006, Steve Brigham, a local man who had been donating propane to various homeless sites throughout Ocean County, began pitching tents in an undeveloped area in the woods.

Video: Nate Lavey

Today, from the smoke rising out from the encampment to the site of garbage cans on the side of the road, Tent City cannot be missed when driving on Cedar Bridge Avenue, a heavily traveled county road that connects to the Garden State Parkway and the rest of New Jersey.

Orthodox Jewish residents, predominately Haredi Jews who have recently begun to move into new housing in the area, constantly complain about the air quality, the vandalism of local schools and disruption of car traffic by Tent City residents. From last December to January of this year, there was one death, two stabbings and three fires in the encampment.

The vitriol between the two sides increases with each incident and each passing day, as Tent City residents must sleep outside in below-freezing temperatures, without any prospect of a permanent home, income or medical assistance

The fate of Tent City could have an enormous impact on the future of Lakewood, home to 100,000 residents — almost half of whom are Haredi Jews drawn to study at Beth Medrash Govoha, the largest yeshiva in America. Once a winter haven for robber barons like Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller, in decades past, the town had been a small enclave of working-class blacks, whites, Hispanics and secular Jews, but now it is growing faster than any other municipality in the state.

And with the growth comes challenges. In recent years, the struggles facing America’s homeless population have been magnified by the plight of the economy. In cities like Seattle; Sacramento, Calif., and Portland, Ore., local shelters and outreach organizations have been overwhelmed by cases, leading to a proliferation of tent cities.

But suburban homelessness is in some ways an even more intractable problem because there are few alternatives. Lakewood and Ocean County have no permanent shelter, with the closest facilities an hour away or farther in Atlantic City, Trenton, Camden and Newark.

“No town plans for the homeless unless they’re forced to,” said David Smiley, a professor of urban studies at Barnard College. “A tent city is essentially a symbol, of a loss of what’s taken place in the last five years. Low-income populations are now even more stressed.”

Rumu DasGupta, a professor of sociology at Lakewood’s Georgian Court University, said the economic and sociological factors at play raise the stakes tremendously. “So many people feel that their well-being, the well-being of Lakewood, hinges so much on what happens to Tent City,” she said. “The eyes of the world are on us.”

At the corner of Clover Street and Cedar Bridge Avenue in Lakewood is a dirt path that leads into Tent City. Inside is a mix of unsettling images of squalor and strong communal bonds.

During a recent visit, resident Dave Jones was giving a tour to a group of Orthodox boys from a nearby school. The boys, curious about what life was like in Tent City, saw hordes of roosters roaming free and piles of day-old pizza slices stacked a foot high on a picnic table, for anyone to take.

The tents range in size and cleanliness; some are equipped with mattresses and resemble a small studio with such amenities as computers and hot plates. Others have liquor bottles strewn on the floor along with other trash, or not much more than a sleeping bag.

Some residents keep gardens or have guard dogs barking at anyone who approaches. Others choose to sit outside, staring blankly, bottles of vodka clutched in their hands. A majority of residents leave in the morning to find work as day laborers in downtown Lakewood and return to eat communal meals around a grill. At night, some residents entertain themselves by betting on cockfights they host deeper in the woods.

Every resident has a winter coat, yet even with proper attire and heat from wood-burning stoves, the chill of the below-freezing temperatures quickly catches hold of fingers and toes.

The encampment includes residents who have struggled with drug addiction or mental illnesses. A few are registered sex offenders. Others have been hit hard by economic struggles, recently and before the recession.

And some have colorful stories. The second resident to live in Tent City was Hermann Winkelmann, a German immigrant who came to Lakewood at 19 and built a small fortune operating businesses in town. Winkelmann’s prized property was a banquet hall that was among the largest on the East Coast, famous for its semblance to a German castle, where for years Lakewood residents held weddings, proms and bar mitzvah receptions.

A mix of bad business investments and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder led to Winkelmann losing his fortune. He died, homeless, on a bus three years ago. Today, the banquet hall, last known as The Chateau Grand, is in ruin, its only inhabitants the deer that are occasionally seen roaming the parking lot.

In the center of the encampment is the Tent City Chapel, where Steve Brigham is often found during the day. A charismatic speaker with the rugged physique of a woodsman, Brigham, 52, often goes by Reverend or Minister Steve. Inside the chapel, the walls are decorated with paintings of Jesus, and a 5-foot wooden cross rests behind the makeshift pulpit. In the corner sits an old church organ. But unlike at most houses of worship, containers of sour cream, cans of Mountain Dew and boxes of Entenmann’s cake are strewn across the floor. Instead of light breaking through stained-glass windows, Brigham uses propane lamps to dispel the darkness.

To Brigham, Tent City provides the best option available for his homeless followers. In shelters, residents are forced into a regimented schedule — “a mass dormitory,” as Brigham described it — where you arrive in the evening and take your belongings and leave in the morning.

“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.

“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.

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.

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.

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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