Having grown up in Ocean County in a big house in the woods, one thing I never thought much about was homelessness. This just wasn’t something I was exposed to during my childhood in Forked River. It wasn’t until my family began taking me into New York City as a young adult that I even became aware of the concept of people without homes. When I first came into contact with a homeless person there, and saw it manifested before me, I remember feeling deeply rattled and confused.
Years later, as an adult, I made New York City my home for 5 years and this idea of homelessness became an everyday reality for me. I encountered them sleeping on benches in subway stations, picking through trash on city streets, begging for money outside of buildings. On one occasion, I saw a homeless woman shivering in the dead of winter, loosely wrapped in some stained and fraying blankets. I gave her some money and was soon after fiercely scolded by a friend, “they’re not human!” he had told me then. But that’s just not something I’ve ever been really able to accept.
Recently after speaking with Reverend Steve Brigham, the former de-facto leader of Tent City (an outlawed homeless encampment in Lakewood), I’m beginning to understand how much of an issue this is in my own backyard.
Reverend Steve Brigham began working with the homeless in 1999 when a man in a boarding home in Jackson asked Brigham for help with his next month’s rent. The man was unable to find work and had no transportation. Brigham, realizing that this man was in dire straights, decided to help him by offering to set up a camp in the woods and bring by food and necessities as often as he could. The man, having no other viable options, agreed, and began to establish a home there. Soon after, the man stumbled upon others living in the woods, but without any form of shelter. The man invited them to join him and Brigham then supplied them tents, sleeping bags and an outdoor cook stove; thus began Tent City.
After getting to know the people living in the camp, he began to understand how large the homeless population in Ocean County was and began to seek out those looking for refuge. He commented, “In Lakewood I found about fifteen people living in abandoned cars off of route 88 by the railroad tracks. At this point I realized there was a problem, and I could make a difference.”
At the start, there were about six camps scattered around northern Ocean County and the minister would bring them any food or any other essentials he could find. That first winter he began to realize how difficult it was for the people living there to make it through the cold winter nights. Brigham expanded, “One man named Vincent, a Vietnam veteran, came down with pneumonia that first winter. He was hospitalized, and after only two weeks in the hospital, he died. That really hit me hard, and I realized that the next winter I had to find some way to bring heat to their living environment.” So, the next winter he started using propane heaters in the tents which made a tremendous difference for the resident’s living conditions.
After a few years, Tent City grew to around 30 people, and it was becoming difficult for Brigham to work full-time and support the forest community. The minister then decided to quit his 17-year career as a high voltage electrical contractor, minimize his expenses and live off of his pension money. He moved into one of the largest growing camps in Lakewood and declared this site as the “headquarters”. Brigham added, “I had always wanted to try living in a teepee, so I built one and set up home. The media, knowing there were no shelters in the area, were quite supportive, and friendly. We were living in relative peace and harmony for a few years, and things seemed to be moving in the right direction. Our hopes were high that something permanent might be created.”
It was around this time that there was a shift in power in the politics of Lakewood, and there were many who weren’t quite as fond of the growing tent community. The town told Brigham they had to take down all of their shanties and huts. “So, I passed around the sledge hammer, and told the residents that they had to demolish their homes. It was hard. Many with tears in their eyes, took the sledgehammer to their home, thinking it would save the community. Although we complied with everything they had asked us to do, about a week later the police came down anyway to serve us eviction papers”.
The following court proceedings lasted around 2 ½ years, and Tent City received legal representation pro bono from Jeff Wild of Lowenstein & Sandler. During this time frame Brigham faced multiple arrests and confrontations with the township. Brigham recalled, “The township sent down the inspection department and gave me a ticket for every tent, wood stove, and structure that didn’t have a permit.” In the end, Lakewood officials agreed to pay for Tent City resident’s housing for 1 year in exchange for forever closing the campsite. Brigham added, “The year of housing went quick, and the conditions for the homeless of Ocean County are worse today than they were ten years ago. Lakewood created anti-homeless laws where if a homeless person is found camping on public property they can be fined $250, and be evicted”.
Currently, former Tent City residents, including Brigham, have set up camp in the woods in Howell. According to the minister, there are around seven people residing in the main camp and there are other camps scattered around neighboring towns. In regards to law enforcement there, Brigham expanded, “they have been very friendly, police and all.”
The minister hasn’t give up hope yet on creating a more permanent solution. He has started a non-profit organization entitled Destiny’s Bridge which, according to it’s social media profile, aims to be an, “intentional community dedicated to the task of providing a transitional home for homeless adults where they can heal and start the process of becoming productively integrated members of society. The primary objective is to provide shelter, sustenance, and medical care; opportunities for rehabilitation and healing, and learning of employable skills to facilitate integration back into mainstream society.” Visit www.destinysbridge.org for more information.