By Christie Duffy
Lakewood has already brought in the heavy machinery to clear out tent city.
Debris and trash is scattered across the ground where encampments once stood. Over 100 homeless called this place home at its peak. It’s now down to about a quarter of that. Those still here say they’ve got nowhere else to turn as the township’s deadline to vacate looms.
“Today to me, it seems like I’ve been condemned to death. And Sunday, it’s execution day. That’s how I feel,” said Lakewood tent city resident Manny Leon.
Leon breaks down into tears when he talks about his situation. Advocates and social workers are making last ditch efforts today to help.
Leon has been offered the option of low income housing.
“I can’t afford it. And the ones that I can afford, they won’t allow the dog. So, I’m not leaving Charlie for nobody,” Leon said.
“Affordable housing has nothing to do with the people sleeping in the woods,” said Lakewood Deputy Mayor Albert Akerman.
The town owns the tent city property and they’ve been pushing to shut it down for years.
A legal battle resulted in an agreement last year. Advocates say Lakewood agreed to provide temporary housing for the homeless for one year before shutting it down. But those who moved in later, like Leon, are not included in the deal.
“A little unethical, dangling that carrot in front of people’s nose when what they really need is housing,” said Minister Steven Brigham, an advocate for the homeless.
Minister Brigham has helped to maintain the camp for years. He says the town has been giving some of the homeless a check instead of housing, which he believes is wrong since some here struggle with substance abuse. He says one man bought a car to live in, but without a license plate. It was confiscated by cops.
“He lost all his money in three days. The $3,500 was gone,” Brigham said. “The township was trying to save themselves money. They weren’t thinking of the well being and the best interest of the homeless.”
“If someone felt they wanted to move somewhere because they found a loved one that would take them in because that’s better than living in an apartment in New Jersey where they won’t have their support group and within a year they’ll be out,” Akerman said. “Is it also cheaper though for the town to write that check than to provide hosing? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.”
The town says their chief concern is safety, not economics. There have been fires here over the years, hypothermia and medical emergencies. The town estimates at least seven have died in the woods.
The deputy mayor says at the rate the camp was growing, it was unsustainable. He says the township has spent over $3 million on trash removal, port-a-johns and temporary housing for residents at the site.
The people left here say they are planning a protest for Monday. There will be signs and chanting. Anything they can do to bring attention to this issue.