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.”

“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<http://www.northjersey.com/news/bergen>, and a comparable number live in Passaic County<http://www.northjersey.com/news/passaic_morris>.

“If there was any group like that in the city of Hackensack<http://www.northjersey.com/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.”

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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7 Responses to “Tent Cities – is this the future of the American Dream?”

  1. joe kumley

    greeting out there you dont know me but I can said frist hand to knowing what it like to being homeless for I been there more than once to said the lease
    trust me nobody wake up one day an said Im think I find out what it like to become homless no it just happens what the differ being there is most of the time a pay check and most of the people you know can become homless to said the lease there doctors lawers and coman people who have fallen on bad times and it sad to said because insted of getting help they are treated like dirt by the good people themself
    most of the time it out of fear in itself of becoming one as well so they are willing to make it a law that it illeagle to be homless so they wont become one in itself
    An in some cases people take it on themself to remove us from the citys or town in there rights to live there hey homeless people are people as well we do have some rights as well problem is the system only look at the ways to remove us from there towns an citys as well too the point of looking the other way whenever someone go out of there way to harm or kill a homeless person why because they know it might be one of there friends or familey doing this too look cool or get respect from others people and who would the court belive or listen to the homeless or the rich kid with friends willing to said he was somewhere else !
    Now your saiding it only happen in the moves wrong was there when this was happing we be shot burn or club with the only wish was to kill or make us a mess in some hospital for the rest of ours lives oh it did make the papers the back page that is due to PR of the towns wanting people to think they are a friendley town to outsider sure if you have money to spend as for the homeless well they dont just sit around all the time there always moving trying to find work any work just to enjoy a simple hot meal or a clean pair of socks on there feet and sure we stick togather an watch out for oneanother as well weeding out any one who be bringing the heat down on us like I said been there been homeless across this country due to being a nam vet live in the desters woods and citys in the woods able to stay alive depending on what you know and not being seen in the desters well people see you and dont come asking question only crazy live out there in there eyes as for the citys or town sure there willing to give you a place to stay call county jail and tell you not to be seen again in the court room show you how much people feel for there fellow american but let there be a problem somewhere else on this earth and people are standing in line to save that country in itself but for this countrey they ten to look the other way saiding it not my problems OK you have that right to said that but think again if you was to become homeless would you like finding out you now have no rights any more ?? I thank you for reading this and think about it befor judeing others people on the streets

    Reply
  2. Dan

    You know, weather politicians and judges like it or not EVERYONE has the right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness as long as it does not physically damage another person or their property, and public land is just that; public. Truth is any problems like sewer can be solved with composting toilets or these self righteous butts can provide port-a-potties. Bottom line is that anytime people begin to function independently of the “system” then those in control get hives over it.

    Reply
  3. lovinlocks

    Sadly, I can not say this surprises me. We have been discussing this exact situation over the last several months as we watch CNN, etc. and Washington’s handling of ever pressing issues.

    We come away with the thought that this is not going to suddenly get better. We have been shown some interesting interment (concentration) camps, currently being maintained, with thousands of empty coffins lined up . . . why??? They are all over You Tube if you want to see for yourself.

    Laws that prohibit folk from feeding their families have recently come before me. For instance, I hear there is a law that forbids hunting (for food)! Excuse me . . . how long do you think the people will stand for watching the wealth eat, feed their children, live in their ritzy homes while the rest of US go without through no fault of our own? Does not the term French [Revolution] mean nothing to the learned of our society?

    People, this situation doesn’t look good. At all.

    Reply
  4. Emily

    If they keep the place clean and peaceful, leave them be. For now that is their home and all they have.

    Reply
  5. Mary Patricia

    This should be no surprise. I live in Cape May, NJ where cats and dogs, the poor and ethnic groups and children are discriminated against even when THEY HAVE HOMES. The Jersey shore is NOTORIOUS for graft, corruption and a facade of pristine propaganda all to gloss over the truth of how bad our society really is and to bring more hapless tourists here to spend more of their precious money on canned and blatant junk. Good on this lawyer, may he be blessed and may he win his case as it goes national.

    Reply
  6. fullerton plumber

    Great article. It’s horrible to see the conditions that people are living in. I used to be homeless years ago and it was definitely an eye-opening experience.

    Reply
  7. Max

    Great post. It’s shocking how the rules designed to protect people are used to persecute the homeless. Thanks for sharing this link with us at CollapseNet. Hopefully our MSBN listing of this article sends some traffic to Off-Grid.net.

    Reply

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