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Blaming The State Of The U.S. Economy, Many Homeless Turn To A "Tent City" In New Jersey For Refuge

posted 22 Mar 2013, 09:22 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 22 Mar 2013, 09:23 ]

More than four years after the global economic meltdown, millions around the world are still suffering. Across America, tent cities have sprung up, and while they're the product of economic hardship, they've developed a unique community atmosphere which means many of their residents don't want to leave.

LAKEWOOD, NEW JERSEYUNITED STATES  (REUTERS) - Nestled in the woods, just an hour's drive from Manhattan's glitzy 5th Avenue, nearly 100 people take refuge in the woods.

From a former businesswoman in the fashion industry to a nurse with three college degrees -- these are some of the people who make up the growing homeless community in Lakewood, New Jersey, where an absence of homeless shelters has forced some 80 people to live in tents.

Hidden away between the trees, less than 12 miles (20 kilometers) from where the reality show "Jersey Shore" is filmed, seven acres (nearly 30,000 square meters) of land is covered in some 100 tents and wooden fences. Accessible only by a dusty dirt path, this is "Tent City" -- the only refuge for the homeless in Ocean CountyNew Jersey.

It was founded by local pastor, Steven Brigham, who was approached by a homeless woman for help. When he could no longer afford to shelter her in conventional housing he decided to bring her to the woods and help her set up a tent as a temporary solution. Now, nearly seven years later, the tent city's population has grown to 80 and Brigham himself now also lives in the encampment, overseeing the daily upkeep of the community.

"It's pretty much myself and other good people of the camp that, we have no other options and they realize that they've got no other options and so we all chip in together, work together for the good of the community," Brigham told Reuters Television.

"There is no homeless shelter in Ocean County, in this area, and so people realize that they have to protect the only place that they can call home and that's Tent City."

As Brigham explained, Ocean County does not offer any emergency housing for the homeless -- a reason that this tent city has managed to survive for so long despite angry opposition from some nearby residents who complain about the encampment, calling the conditions "disgusting" and saying that smoke and a foul stench from the woods is polluting neighboring residential areas.

Legal battles between city officials and Tent City residents have raged for years, but recently a judge ruled that tent city residents could not be evicted until the local government comes up with a viable housing solution -- something Brigham says needs to happen soon.

"As the homeless population grows in this area and across America because of the economy, I think all governments, you know, all small, local governments and the state and federals have got to realize that we've got a situation on our hands, that there's more people becoming homeless and we've got to really deal with this situation in a very aggressive manner to head it off."

Homelessness continues to be a problem across the United States with national statistics showing that more than 3 million Americans are likely to experience homelessness in a given year, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

And Lakewood's encampment is only one such refuge. Over 100 tent cities exist in 41 of the 51 states, according to a media survey facilitated by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty conducted between the years of 2008 and 2012. Some 5,000 people are estimated to be living in the camps, many of whom were living comfortable lives before the 2008 global recession struck.

Many in Lakewood's encampment became homeless as a result of mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction or bad business dealings. Others, who were successful in business in the past, suffered under the recession and blame the worsening state of the U.S. economy for their unlucky lot.

Forty-six-year-old Angelo Villanueva was a construction worker specializing in masonry. He used to earn $25 U.S. dollars an hour, but now -- when he can find work -- only gets around $8 U.S. dollars an hour before taxes.

For Angelo, Tent City has been a saving grace. He doesn't make enough money to be able to afford proper housing, but makes too much to be eligible for government assistance. Many call this a state of "financial limbo" -- too poor to afford a proper roof over their heads, but not poor enough to be assisted.

Angelo has lived in Tent City for 18 months since losing his apartment. He now lives in a tent that is about 12 foot wide and six foot long -- just big enough for his queen-sized bed, a portable toilet, a table and a small wood-burning stove.

"I used to make $25 dollars an hour back in my heyday and having an apartment for $700 was not a problem, but now that I've been through this and I'm experiencing all of this, I think in American we have a housing problem that we need to address as far as having affordable housing," Angelo explained.

For Angelo, Tent City was a life-saver, but it's not a place he wants to stay forever.

"I mean, you're provided the basic necessities. You've got a roof over your head -- it's a nylon roof, but it's a roof -- I'm dry, my bed is dry, food comes in through donations, the good people out there. We get food, we get water. I have water. Your basic necessities are met here, but you know, I'm not going to think that this is going to be forever because I don't want to live like this, you know. I want to...go in an apartment, ...back to what I had: a car, an apartment. You know, this should be temporary."

In the middle of Tent City is an outdoor kitchen, with gas burners and canteen-style tables laden with canned food, bottled water and tubs of dairy products like yogurt. The food is supplied to the camp through donations and volunteers from different organizations throughout New Jersey visit the camp regularly to help chop trees, erect tents and clean up the grounds.

During the winter the residents rely on wood-burning stoves to keep warm and during the summer they use their tents to shield themselves from the harsh midday sun. There is no running water or electricity.

The air is filled with the smell of smoldering wood chips and the sounds of roosters crowing. Dogs wander the area and sniff for food.

A church service is held each night in the "Tent City Chapel", led by Pastor Brigham. Currently the chapel tent also houses two new homeless residents who have yet to acquire their own tents. They wait for the evening church service to end before climbing into their sleeping bags for the night.

Not far from the chapel, surrounded by chickens, sixty-two-year-old Marilyn Berenzweig sits in a lawn chair next to three tents that make up her woodland homestead. She and sixty-three-year-old husband, Michael, have been living in Tent City for nearly three years. She used to make $100,000 U.S. dollars a year working in the fashion industry. She was hit hard by the recession and lost her job due to outsourcing.

"We've actually been here nearly three years. We came here because it seemed like the best option for us and we haven't regretted it at all. We've liked it here. It's not perfect, but nothing's perfect," Marilyn told Reuters.

"The industry I was in for 35 years, which was textile design, in which I did quite well, it all just collapsed. It all went to China and there are no jobs."

While this tent city might not be a permanent solution for the Berenzweigs, Marilyn says they'll never return to conventional homeless shelters. Their need for freedom and their loyalty to their pet chickens means they'll stay true to the tent city lifestyle for as long as they can. They plan to buy a bigger, more luxurious tent, and relocate to a less crowded tent city.

But for those who plan to remain in Lakewood's Tent City, their days may be numbered. Authorities say that under an agreement reached between attorneys representing the tent city residents and Lakewood officials, the tent camp in the woods will soon cease to exist.

On March 15 a judge ruled that Brigham is to begin prohibiting new campers from moving into Tent City while city officials will undertake a census of the residents, assessing their needs in an effort to find permanent housing for them, for at least a year. In return Ocean County has agreed to drop its eviction suit against the encampment.

But some, including Brigham, are skeptical of the move, saying they are cautiously optimistic, but are not holding their breath. All agree that permanent housing is necessary, but it still remains to be decided what type of housing is appropriate.

Most traditional government-run homeless shelters require the homeless to leave during the day and only return at night. And each night the homeless sleep in a different bed, many huddled on top of their possessions out of fear of being robbed, Tent City residents explained to Reuters.

They say Tent City offers them more than just a shelter -- it offers them a sense of pride and ownership. It gives them the ability to own their own tent and they can decorate and furnish their tent however they desire -- just as they would their own house or apartment. It's a home where they can spend their time knowing that they are part of a community.

As Marilyn's husband of forty years, Michael sits in the harsh sunlight, at the keyboard of his weathered upright piano, he says life in a conventional shelter would not be the same.

"It's hard for me to think in conventional terms, if you know what I mean. What is homeless? Is your soul homeless or is your body in a nice, comfortable place, you know?"

"In a way, being out here with the trees and having a haven for the chickens and we take care of birds too, that's a home."

No date has been set yet for when Tent City's homeless will be relocated.