“Welcome to the zoo,” a man snarls as I walk down a dirt track in Lakewood, New Jersey, into an encampment in the forest known simply as Tent City. It’s two in the afternoon, and he’s drunk on cheap beer, standing outside a tarp-covered tent, shouting at me. Before he can be led away by other residents, he offers an editorial suggestion: “Write this: This place should be fucking eradicated. Drop a bomb on it.”
Lakewood’s leadership couldn’t agree more.
This hardscrabble encampment 60 miles south of Manhattan—the suburban version of rock bottom—is now hobbling through its final, frigid winter. Over the past few years, the town has been embroiled in a legal battle to shut down Tent City.
Tent City was founded seven years ago, by a Libertarian minister under the notion that all you need to end homelessness is a patch of land, a lot of faith, and some old-fashioned, all-American gumption. Last year, the town and its homeless reached a deal to close the camp, in return for giving each current resident one year’s free housing. Already, the camp’s disintegration is taking a toll.
By February 1, the community was down to 60 residents from a peak of 122, last May. Steve Brigham—the 53-year-old pastor who has been ministering to the region’s homeless for 14 years—expects that by spring, this settlement could be dismantled altogether. This winter's brutal stretch of snowstorms, polar vortices, and record-setting cold days could be the last winter Tent City sees. What will happen after that, nobody knows.
Some residents don’t want to leave. After all, there’s still no homeless shelter in the entire county. Others now in Tent City arrived too late to qualify for resettlement (the camp is technically closed to new residents, though they keep showing up anyway).
Pastor Steve says he didn’t set out to build Tent City like some frontiersman embarking into the Pine Barrens. It just kind of happened.
“This is not so much a living protest as a living demonstration of a need for shelter, a need for affordable housing,” he says.
He was working for a high-voltage electrical contractor on New York Port Authority bridges 14 years ago when he began doing outreach and met a man who couldn’t make his rent. Brigham got him a tent and a sleeping bag and sent him into the woods. There, the man ran across more homeless people, who knew of still more homeless people. Steve brought them tents too.
Other homeless were living in abandoned cars, so Steve brought blankets around. But that first winter, a man died of pneumonia sleeping in his car. “I thought to myself, Something more has to be done to help the homeless than just blankets,” Steve says. “The next year, I started supplying propane and relocated the people from cars to tents. And it made a big difference as to how the homeless fared through the wintertime.” By 2007, he was serving nine encampments around Ocean County. Eventually, he consolidated his work in Lakewood.
Over time, Steve quit his job. His marriage fell apart as he spent more and more time outdoors. But one thing never stopped: the flow of desperate people into Tent City. Steve himself moved in six years ago. “I just minimized my overhead—minimized it to almost zero,” he says. “Food, clothing, shelter... That’s all you really need.”
He lived in a donated school bus until the town towed and scrapped it, in one of many escalating events leading up to the encampment’s dissolution. There’ve been tickets issued, threats of fines, police raids, and what residents describe as ongoing harassment. Still, one of the more remarkable things about Tent City is that it wasn’t bulldozed summarily, as so many others around the country have been. "They didn’t dare," Brigham says. He credits a friendly local newspaper columnist, the Asbury Park Press’s late Bill Handelman, with stirring public sentiment in his favor.
Today in Tent City, there are two types of people left: those trying their hardest to get the hell out, and those who can’t seem to bring themselves to leave.
Jerry Galante, 43, first came to Tent City four years ago, after the encampment he was living in—behind a Target in Brick Township—was cleared out by police. In his wallet, he carries a photo of a toddler wearing a clean red dress and a broad grin: his two-year-old daughter. She stays with guardians, and he’s hoping they’ll adopt.
“I move around a lot. I don’t want to put her through that,” Jerry says. He’s moved out of Tent City before, he says. “I keep coming back. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s the people or the animals.”
Right now, he’s caring for a friend’s pit bull, a sweet monster named Chantelle who hogs his bed at night. His tent is mid-range real estate for Tent City, large and tarp covered, on a wooden platform, with a wood stove inside and a chimney peaking out. Some others have picket fences, even lawn ornaments.
“It kind of sucks they’re closing us down, because where’s the next person gonna go?” he says.
Robert, 47, who declined to give his last name, has been at Tent City a year with his wife. He’s a landscaper; she gets disability payments. They’re getting an apartment this week, and Robert cannot wait.
“This place used to have unity. Now, it’s every man and woman for himself. This place takes a wear and a tear on you,” he says. “Me and my wife go out a lot. We try to stay away from here as much as possible, go to the laundromat, out to eat, anything to get out of here. Staying here all day, all night, will drive you crazy. It’s like prison, this place. You’re on Gilligan’s Island without a boat. “
His wife used to clean the showers every morning, he says. She got sick of doing it on her own. She hates that she can’t have her morning cigarette without someone asking her for a drag.
While cigarettes and good spirits may be in short supply, many other things are in abundance. Steve's phone buzzes nonstop with people dropping off donations. Bagels. Clothing by the trashbag. Tent City has a dozen hens and roosters, wandering around, free-range. Jerry says no one bothers to collect the eggs. “We get eggs in here all the time,” he shrugs. No one goes hungry in Tent City. They just get sick of pizza, burgers, and hot dogs.
DuraFlame logs, bottles of water, candles, toilet paper, and other necessities are meted out at the supply tent. It’s manned by Alex Libman, who is also the webmaster, answering 20 emails a day offering donations and updating a Facebook page with 4,000 likes.
Alex was a computer programmer until the stress burned him out. “To what degree I’m here by choice, that’s a difficult question to answer,” he says. After he quit his job, his savings lasted five years. Then he moved to Tent City.
He finds it preferable to his previous housing even despite Tent City’s troubled history—including fires, stabbings, a propane explosion, deaths from exposure, and, by several accounts, a steady flow of heroin. He says he rejected the township’s housing deal.
“When they evict me by force, I’ll start another Tent City, somewhere else,” he says. He says he has a libertarian manifesto that would explain his reasoning better, but he tells me the abridged version: He thinks zoning rules, property taxes, and other government interventions are making the cost of living unreasonably high—especially in places like Lakewood.
The trouble with Lakewood especially, according to Steve, is that the ultra-Orthodox Jews that control the town and its services—such as public schools and affordable housing—aren’t looking after the needs of those outside their own sect.
It’s true that life outside Tent City isn’t much easier.
Angelo Villanueva, 50, was one of the first to move out. After almost three years, he left last September and now lives in Toms River, about 10 miles away. For $550 per month, he rents a basement bedroom. He’s been laid off from his job since he moved, but he’s hopeful. “Nothing in life is long-term,” but he thinks he can afford this place going forward.
Angelo, who lost his job during the recession, estimates that 85 percent of the residents of Tent City have drug-addiction or mental-health issues. He was one of the 15 percent who had suffered a mere financial calamity. Back at Tent City, he was a leader. He’d keep order by fighting (he practices kung fu daily), or bribing people with cigarettes. He’d volunteer for chores and then nag others to do the same. Now that he’s left, he misses it.
“We had a little community,” he says. “We all would pull together there, and I miss that aspect.” Everyone was on equal footing in Tent City. Outside, it’s all social standing and privacy fences. “People don’t know each other like that.”
But what he misses may no longer exist. “The sense I’m getting is, things aren’t the same,” he admits.
When Tent City does finally get packed up, it’s clear that the need will remain. Three days a week, Steve rolls his last working school bus into the town square and dumps whatever clothing, food, toiletries, or electronics he doesn’t need for Tent City onto a set of long folding tables. A hundred or more people crowd in hungrily.
Marco Contreras, 25, originally from Veracruz, Mexico, visited Tent City one Saturday to see if he could get a bite. He lives in a house with seven other people—a typical arrangement for immigrants in Lakewood, one of New Jersey’s fastest-growing towns. Sometimes, he goes to Tent City to eat.
A day laborer, Marco says as many as 500 people can crowd the town square each morning waiting for a day’s work. Sometimes he waits all day and can’t get a job. Whether he can make his rent or not, half of everything he earns goes home, to his family and his 5-year-old son, Carlos.
Marco lived for a while in one of those overcrowded houses packed with day laborers. He opted to move into Tent City. At least in Tent City, he had his privacy. “It was like a piece of the American dream,” he says.
Brigham wants to build a permanent shelter that will offer those same dignities: a village of tiny houses, fueled by solar power, sustainable farming, fishing, and maybe even tourism. He’d like to have it up and running before the year of free housing ends, but he has a long way to go.
So, once all the residents are housed according to the consent order, those who don’t qualify for free housing will, Brigham expects, be asked to leave.
“Hopefully they’ll have a place to go,” he says. If not, “I can get them a tent and tell them to find a piece of woods someplace to set up in, and hopefully they won’t be found out.”