According to the National Student Campaign against Hunger and Homelessness, over 3.5 million people experience homelessness each year. Thirty five percent of these people are in families with children, the fastest growing category of homeless people in the U.S.
A common conclusion that many people jump to is that all homeless people are alcoholics or junkies who lost everything they had to fuel their latest addiction. While that may be true for some homeless people, it’s wrong to assume that it’s true for the majority. The National Student Campaign against Hunger and Homelessness reports that 23 percent of homelessness is attributed to military veterans, 25 percent of homeless people are under 18-years-old and 30 percent have experienced domestic violence.
Homelessness is not only an epidemic in major cities, but it is also a problem that is closer to home than we may think. Approximately 30 minutes away from the University is a local homeless community in Lakewood, NJ. Started by Minister Steve Brigham, Tent City is a clearing in the woods that is “home” to nearly 100 local homeless people. The grounds have been in use for 12 years and Minister Steve has spent four of those years living on the site.
Filmmaker Jack Ballo made a documentary titled “Destiny’s Bridge” about Tent City and its residents which was shown at the University during the Global Understanding Convention on April 8 in Wilson Auditorium. It featured Minister Steve and other homeless people who live on the encampment. The film followed residents through their struggle to overcome obstacles such as addiction and paying for medical bills.
“Whether it is losing a job, getting evicted, drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness or even being released from the prison system, [Tent City residents] did not have the means to get the help they needed when assistance was still in reach,” said Ballo. “No family, no money saved, no equity in a house or 401K to borrow from. They reach the end of their rope and it’s over, re-entering society becomes almost impossible when everything breaks down and you have nothing left.”
Jennifer Shamrock, a lecturer of communication, believes that homelessness is an issue that students should be concerned about. “I think students aren’t just students. I think that they are citizens of a democracy. I think that they need to be informed about the regional area they live in as well as the national landscape and climate as well as what’s going on internationally,” said Shamrock. “I think that homelessness and poverty are related to larger structural economic and social issues that need to be addressed and students are part of that solution.”
The local government has not been supportive of Minister Steve and Tent City. Brigham has been in a court room many times since Tent City was founded. Some of the charges were about the illegal use of land, although Tent City is set on a clearing that is not owned or used by anyone, according to Tent City’s website.
During this last winter, the residents of Tent City had no other method of keeping themselves warm than by using their wood stoves. Lakewood police came by and ticketed residents for doing so, Brigham said. His son videotaped the incident on his camera. “The police came up to [my son] and they assaulted him. They shined a spotlight in his camera and then shoved him,” said Brigham.
Brigham fought the incident in court and said that the judge was appalled by the behavior of the police. Through that court case, he was able to get a restraining order on behalf of Tent City against the police.
However, most Lakewood residents do not see Tent City as much of a disturbance, according to one Lakewood reporter at the film screening. He said that out of the 10-15 people he interviewed in the apartments across from Tent City, only one of them had an issue with the encampment.
Lakewood Township public officials also fought against Tent City previously by passing an ordinance that outlawed sleeping outside on any public property, according to Tent City’s website. It says, “This ordinance is an example of laws / rules / policies which are known collectively as the ‘criminalization of homelessness.’ A survey of more than 200 American cities, towns & municipalities reports that more than half of them have attempted to ban one or more of the following: giving food to groups of people in public, sleeping or laying down in public, sitting on a curb/sidewalk, or asking for money in public.”
Residents cannot feel welcomed in their own town, and there is no shelter in Ocean County for them to stay at. Many former residents have been able to find stable employment and move out of the encampment, according to their website, proving that they are not taking advantage of a free living environment. Homeless people in NJ are capable of change and have the motivation to move forward. Such negativity from the law is hindering the progress of these individuals, and if continued, may completely stop residents from ever being able to move out.
Tent City is only one homeless encampment in NJ. There are also places like Tent City in areas such as Toms River and Camden. They are even more populous in other U.S. states. Brigham and the Lakewood encampment hope to continue to be able to help the homeless by acquiring more land and creating a self-sustaining shelter, Destiny’s Bridge.
PHOTO COURTESY of Ultravision Films