Nick Rosen | |
Why stop people from trying to help themselves?

As Tent Cities spring up across America, this kind of picture is becoming commonplace. And its just the beginning.

Residents of the 150-person Tent City near Lake Wood, Ocean County New Jersey are mainly former householders with decent employment records. They are not derelicts, substance abusers or criminals.

Tens of thousands of law-abiding foreclosure victims would like to live this way. But States will not let them – citing petty health and safety objections – as if being homeless is not the ultimate health and safety issue.

Nina Rogala, left, has been living in Lakewood’s tent city for about three years. Mark Mroczek, right, has been there about eight months.‘We’ve been in and out of the camp for a year,’ said ex-hotel worker Burt Haut, 43, who lives with his wife, ex-teacher Barbara, 48 in a tent styled like a teepee from the Old West.

‘Our financial difficulties since the credit crisis three years ago have caused us to camp on public ground, at the back of churches and down the backs of closed down stores. We’ve had help from our friends and family, but we have run that well dry.”

For nearly a year attorney Jeffrey J. Wild has spent his free time working on behalf of dozens of homeless men and women who are being threatened with eviction from a tent city they have established on publicly owned land in Ocean County.

Wild, 51, sees the case as more than just a local or regional issue, arguing that thousands of homeless people across New Jersey could benefit from his push to expand their rights to shelter on public land.

For Wild, the issue isn’t simply a question of right versus wrong. He also sees it from the standpoint of someone who has been personally touched by homelessness.

“My father was homeless at times during the Great Depression, so I have always known that, with just a little bad luck, any of us could be unable to make our monthly rent or mortgage,” he said

“‘We have a petrol-powered generator that heats up the water for the shower and lets us wash up dishes after donated meals,” said one resident.

Local officials try to close down the functioning community

‘We have pet chickens which are not for eggs, they are to eat the ticks that could make us feel very ill with Lyme disease or a blood infection.

‘It is a racially diverse community with Mexicans, Polish, Irish, African American and white people.

‘There are eight women living here too, which was a problem in the past, but has now made the camp more calm by their presence,” said the resident.

Working pro bono, Wild has filed a suit on behalf of dozens of homeless men and women in Ocean County who are being evicted from their home on public land. “I have learned that New Jersey’s ‘safety net’ is full of holes – and that men, women and children are falling through them, and hitting the ground every day.”

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“When it’s a subfreezing night when we wouldn’t send our pets outside, these people are being told they have to leave,” Wild said at a May 5 hearing on the matter in Toms River. “The safety net cannot have holes.

he pro-bono legal work he has done on their behalf takes up much of his time when he isn’t helping to run the capital markets litigation team at Lowenstein Sandler, a Roseland-based law firm.

The case originated last summer, when the township of Lakewood sued for the right to remove most of the tent city residents from a patch of woods on township-owned land near a highway.

A judge initially ruled in the township’s favor, saying that the residents had to vacate once the government found another place for them to stay. But Wild filed a counterclaim late last year, arguing that the government’s temporary accommodations were a waste of money – some of the homeless had been put up in hotel rooms for $100 per night – and that the tent city residents had an implicit “right-to-shelter” under the state constitution that should allow them to stay on public land indefinitely.

Township officials responded by saying that the tent city, which includes an outhouse, tepees and livestock, was an environmental and safety hazard.

Township and county officials also said that the county’s network of seven homeless shelters was sufficient, and that they had gone out of their way to offer temporary accommodations to the tent city residents.

“There is a difference between the government’s authority to provide services and their obligation to do so,” said Jean Cipriani, a lawyer for the Ocean County Board of Social Services. “There are many things that the government must do, but this is not one of them.”

The most recent official estimates suggest that around 1,400 homeless men and women live in Bergen County<>, and a comparable number live in Passaic County<>.

“If there was any group like that in the city of Hackensack<>, the police would’ve disbanded them long ago,” said Robin Reilly, who founded the FAITH Foundation, a homeless services non-profit, in 2002. “But there are people out there. I know they’re there. They call me in the morning because they want someone to know where to look.”

Reilly said that the Lakewood tent city had a better shot at remaining because of its size.

“There’s strength in numbers,” she said.

Wild’s connection to the homeless in Lakewood started through an outreach program at Barnert Temple, which has been donating food, clothing, kerosene stoves and other equipment to the tent city residents since 2007.

“It’s really rooted in the idea that every human being has worth,” said Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple.

“When it became clear over time that the Lakewood community was interested in ejecting them and they had no place to go, Jeff became very concerned.”

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The suit faces uncertain prospects in the courts. Wild said that he was pleased that Superior Court Judge Vincent Grasso in Ocean County allowed parts of his counterclaim to go forward at the May 5 hearing. But Grasso dismissed Wild’s broadest argument against the encampment crackdown – that it violated the state constitution.

“The issue in this case is not the plight of the homeless, but the procedural process,” Grasso said. He also questioned both sides about specific state laws that the county was violating.

In response, Wild pointed to a long history of laws that he said applied to the Lakewood case, including the so-called Elizabethan Poor Laws, which he said firmly establish the state’s obligation to provide food and shelter for its citizens.

But Cipriani, the Ocean County lawyer, called the Poor Laws “antiquated,” and noted that some date to pre-colonial America.

Grasso seemed to agree, but instead of dismissing the case outright he gave Wild 45 days to “amend and amplify” his claim. Wild said Friday that he would file an expanded claim on July 1.

After that, a new hearing date may be set.

For the tent city residents, that means their encampment is safe – at least for now.

Several residents who attended the hearing seemed to take the judge’s decision in stride even as they decried the process.

Michael Berenzweig, 61, said that he took up residence in the tent city more than a year ago as he and his wife suffered through a long stretch of unemployment. The two have since raised chickens there and maintain a makeshift home.

Berenzweig said he reacted to the judge’s ruling with indifference.

“To me it’s just a lot of dragging things on,” he said. “People aren’t looking at the gigantic issue in this thing, that homelessness and starvation could be solved. Everyone’s ignoring it.”

One member of the motley crew who lives in Tent City claims to be the nephew of country great Johnny Cash.

‘I used to be a guitarist and played at BB Kings’ club in New York City,’ said Mark.

‘But my girlfriend left me, I lost my home and I travelled round Toms River near here sleeping rough.

‘I was told about Tent City and minister Steve by a fellow homeless person and I walked down here and approached him for a space in his camp.

‘It is like a family here and he helped me get set up with a camping tent and now I have friends and people to talk to, which I have not had since my life collapsed.

‘My family can’t seem to help me no more and I have accepted that every time that they have tried to I have let them down and failed to sort my life out.

‘I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have this place to live in.’


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