By Michael Hill
Attorney Jeff Wild pursues helping the homeless fearlessly and for free.
Wild is the executive director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. He prevented Lakewood from bulldozing 120 men and women from their encampment two years ago and found them shelter.
This was his first visit to this encampment in Passaic County.
“I can’t believe that we live in New Jersey in 2016 and we can’t do any better than having people live in encampments underneath a bridge. Nobody wants to live in conditions like this,” Wild said.
This Clifton encampment is under the Ackerman Avenue Bridge over the Passaic River on the border with Garfield where Wild offered to represent two unauthorized men.
One man said employers wouldn’t pay him and he lost three apartments even though he had been working like crazy.
Francisco Alonzo cried on the phone explaining to Wild’s assistant that he had worked very hard and was owed money.
“We’ll talk to the town of Clifton and try to get you some help,” Wild said.
From the looks of what’s here, it appears this has been a haven for the homeless for some time.
“I think it’s sad that people have to live like this because of circumstances that they fell into,” said Clifton City Council member Lauren Murphy.
Some of the debris here floats from upstream. Some comes from illegal dumping but the bulk of it — mattresses, blankets, artwork, children’s toys — is dragged here by the men and women who take shelter here.
“Clearly we don’t like to see people living in these conditions,” said Dominick Villano, Cliftons’s city manager. When asked if he knew whether or not it he knew it was this bad Villano said, “I didn’t realize it was this bad until were here today. I’ve seen pictures of it, it didn’t seem as bad but it’s pretty sad underneath.”
Researchers say New Jersey’s homeless population declined by 1,600 from 2014 to last year, but this encampment signifies a stubborn reality of the effort to shelter the homeless temporarily or permanently.
“The number of folks experiencing an un-sheltered location who are staying in a place not meant for human habitation did increase slightly between 2014 and 2015. From 934 counted at 2014’s point in time and it increased to 974 in 2015,” said Jay Everett, associate for Monarch Housing Associates.
Today, officials from Clifton and the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission assessed how to handle this. They’ve done outreach, encouraging the homeless to go to local shelters and get the services they need as the town plans to post signs to let residents know crews will return on May 16 to clear the area of the people and their possessions.
“Nobody should have to live like this,” Murphy said.