Sunday, December 30, 2012

A rough stretch at Tent City

A week after a local resident died from hyperthermia, there was a stabbing at the tent encampment, as reported by The immediate reaction from some is going to be a sense of outrage -- at the homeless themselves. But the reality is that we have allowed conditions to fester that leave people to the elements like animals. We are the ones to blame for what happens here.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Tax reform that builds affordable housing

Here is a press release from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition on a proposed change in the mortgage deduction that looks like it could both help middle-class homeowners and the homeless:

The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) today announced that it supports legislation to address the affordable housing needs of low and middle income American families through mortgage interest deduction reform and funding the National Housing Trust Fund

The Common Sense Housing Investment Act (H.R. 6677), introduced December 18 by Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN), would convert the mortgage interest deduction to a flat rate 20% tax credit and cap the maximum mortgage to receive a tax break at $500,000. H.R 6677 would direct the majority of the savings gained from these modifications to the National Housing Trust Fund. Mr. Ellison estimates that the savings would be about $27 billion a year.

“Gearing mortgage interest tax breaks more toward middle class and lower income homeowners will provide a tax benefit where it is needed most,” NLIHC President and CEO Sheila Crowley said. “Representative Ellison’s bill would allow all homeowners with mortgages to receive a tax break, not just those who have enough income to file itemized tax returns.”

Under this proposed change, the number of homeowners with mortgages who would benefit from the tax break would increase from 43 million to 60 million, with 92% of the increase being households with incomes less than $100,000 a year.

The National Housing Trust Fund was established by Congress in 2008, but has yet to be funded. Its purpose is to reduce the shortage of rental homes that are affordable for the lowest income families.
Nationwide, for every 100 households with incomes in the bottom 30% of income, there are only 30 rental homes that are affordable and available to them. Once funded, the National Housing Trust Fund will provide grants to states to build, preserve, rehabilitate, and operate rental housing that these households can afford.

“Funding the National Housing Trust Fund would create thousands of jobs in the construction trades. We can end homelessness in the United States if we put enough money in the National Housing Trust Fund,” said Crowley.

In addition to providing funding for the National Housing Trust Fund, H.R 6677 would expand the Low Income Housing Tax Program and increase funding for HUD’s Section 8 and public housing programs.

Over 600 national, state and local organizations have endorsed NLIHC’s proposal to reform the mortgage interest deduction and use the savings to fund the National Housing Trust Fund.

Individual taxpayers can calculate how these proposed changes to mortgage interest tax policy would affect their taxes by the housing tax reform calculator at

Learn more about NLIHC’s proposal at

Housing money for storm victims underscores lack of commitment to low-income housing

The state is providing 1,000 housing vouchers to low-income people displaced by Hurricane Sandy. According to a press release from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the Christie administration "will set aside 1,000 vouchers from the state-administered Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program to assist low-income households that were displaced by the storm in moving into permanent housing." The program, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, "will provide vouchers that will be used as 'Special Admissions' for households that cannot return to their homes. The vouchers, which average approximately $9,840 per year per household, will total $9.84 million."

The vouchers are good news for those displaced by the massive storm that ravaged the area at the end of October, but they also point to the failure on the part of both the state and the federal government to make a meaningful monetary contribution to battling homelessness.

I've spent a lot of time over the last six months talking with advocates and people who run shelters and the major takeaway from those conversations is this: You need to build housing if you are going to battle homelessness. And that takes money.

New Jersey has a huge deficit of affordable units -- and not just of the Mount Laurel sort. We need an array of housing types that would be affordable to those living at and just below the sustainable wage level of $22 an hour, to be sure, but we also need housing for the large group of people who have not been able to hold down jobs.

Rather than leave the most vulnerable population to shelters -- or to places like Tent City in Lakewood -- we need to find the resolve to get people into real homes. We have a responsibility as a society to ensure that the people left behind, people who are the byproduct of our economic system, have someplace healthy and safe to live.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Raising a new generation of homeless

From today's New York Times:
Across the country, tens of thousands of underemployed and jobless young people, many with college credits or work histories, are struggling to house themselves in the wake of the recession, which has left workers between the ages of 18 and 24 with the highest unemployment rate of all adults.

Those who can move back home with their parents — the so-called boomerang set — are the lucky ones. But that is not an option for those whose families have been hit hard by the economy, including Mr. Taylor, whose mother is barely scraping by while working in a laundromat. Without a stable home address, they are an elusive group that mostly couch surfs or sleeps hidden away in cars or other private places, hoping to avoid the lasting stigma of public homelessness during what they hope will be a temporary predicament.

These young adults are the new face of a national homeless population, one that poverty experts and case workers say is growing. Yet the problem is mostly invisible. Most cities and states, focusing on homeless families, have not made special efforts to identify young adults, who tend to shy away from ordinary shelters out of fear of being victimized by an older, chronically homeless population. The unemployment rate and the number of young adults who cannot afford college “point to the fact there is a dramatic increase in homelessness” in that age group, said Barbara Poppe, the executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

The Tent City Project is an artistic look at human rights issues facing residents of a homeless camp in Lakewood, NJ and its connection to the growing number of tent cities across the country. See our Facebook page for more information -- and don't forget to "Like" us.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Buddy, can you spare a jail cell?

Brian Eastman wanted to spend the night in jail; instead, he faces a fine for drinking in public and still must find away to deal with the cold.

As reported by, police approached the 46-year-old Eastman as he was "drinking a 24-ounce can of Mike's Hard Iced Tea in front of Macho Nacho restaurant at 66 Morris St. at about 2:12 a.m. Wednesday, police said."
As O'Brien approached Eastman, the homeless man put down the can, police said.

"You got me. I'll take the ticket. I want to go to jail because it is getting cold out here," Eastman told O'Brien, according to the police report.

Instead of arresting Eastman, O'Brien gave him a ticket for drinking in public and threw out the alcoholic beverage without incident, police said.
The incident -- presented as a brief item in a police blotter -- offers a glimpse into our failed economy and the lack of seriousness with which we are approaching its natural byproduct.

The American economy has been rigged to generate massive wealth for a small subset of the population, who has managed to take the profits off the top while pushing the cost of the economic byproduct (as in a chemical equation) onto the public. Se we have homelessness and poverty and economic instability, pollution and health problems, shattered urban areas and devastated rural towns -- all created by the actions of corporate America, but ameliorated through the auspices of federal, state and local governments with the cost being shared by each and everyone of us.

Perhaps, this is logical. We get some of the benefits, so why shouldn't we share in the cost? The problem is that we are paying on both ends: We pay in higher prices and waning workplace power on the one side and then again through our taxes -- and rising crime, dirtier air and water, etc. -- on the other side. And people like Brian Eastman remain on the streets, and going so far as to commit a petty offense to get himself a warm space for the night.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Tent City needs your help

Photos by Sherry Rubel

While the residents of Tent City survived Hurricane Sandy with minimal damage, they were not so lucky when an early November snow storm blanketed the region in white.Tents collapsed and residents have been forced to scramble for new shelter. The folks down there need help.

If you can, please reach out to the residents down there through the Tent City Project -- send us an email -- and we will put you in touch with the Rev. Steve Brigham. The folks there will appreciate it.

The Tent City Project is an artistic look at human rights issues facing residents of a homeless camp in Lakewood, NJ and its connection to the growing number of tent cities across the country. See our Facebook page for more information -- and don't forget to "Like" us.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Report: Tent City survives the storm

A report in The Asbury Park Press offers good news for Tent City in Lakewood:

Approximately 40 residents of the community in the woods off Cedar Bridge Avenue stayed at the camp during the storm, the remaining members went to shelters or moved in with family members, said Steve Brigham, founder of the camp.

“The most important thing is that no one got hurt,’’ he said. “We did have one tree fall on a tent, but that couple had decided to leave.’’

Several structures where damaged during the storm, Brigham said. The camp has approximately 80 residents in total.

“There were a bunch of tents that were destroyed but we have ones to replace them,’’ Brigham said. “Overall, we are not doing that bad.’’
More to come when I talk with Brigham and can make my way to Lakewood.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


We're waiting for news from Tent City, but it appears that most residents of the homeless camp vacated to local churches. I'll update when I get more information.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Housing is a human right

Former President Jimmy Carter reminds us today, in a post on The Huffington Post about World Habitat Day, of the importance of providing shelter.

Today, World Habitat Day, is a day to recognize the basic need for adequate shelter in a world where it is lacking for so many -- a day for grassroots action, starting in your community. As we reflect on the state of towns and cities everywhere and the right of everyone to decent housing, I challenge you to reflect on the actions that you can take. In your own community, in communities around the globe and in places such as Haiti that so desperately need our assistance. I believe, as does Habitat, in the idea of many homes, one community. The act of building, of renovating, of coming together cements a bond not easily undone. When we bring together available resources, take decisive action and advocate for lasting change, we build the kind of stability, that Haiti -- and we -- need.
Ithought it was something that goes for Lakewood, as well.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Update on Tent City litigation

Photo by Sherry Rubel

The news may be good for Tent City residents regarding their lawsuit against Lakewood and Ocean County. Mediation appears to be moving the process forward and could result in an agreement to prevent the eviction.

I'll have more going forward on this and we'll have our own clips and photos up. In the meantime, read the Asbury Park Press story
The Tent City Project is an artistic look at human rights issues facing residents of a homeless camp in Lakewood, NJ and its connection to the growing number of tent cities across the country. See our Facebook page for more information -- and don't forget to "Like" us.

Tent City to Tent City: Lakewood visits Camden

Photos by Sherry Rubel

Residents of Lakewood Tent City visited their counterparts in Camden last week to compare notes and make common cause.

The Tent City Project is an artistic look at human rights issues facing residents of a homeless camp in Lakewood, NJ and its connection to the growing number of tent cities across the country. See our Facebook page for more information -- and don't forget to "Like" us.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Covenant House book online

Poet Tina Kelly, a former writer for The New York Times, and Covenant House President Kevin Ryan have published a book chronicling six kids who went from homelessness to success. The forward, by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, is online.

The Tent City Project is an artistic look at human rights issues facing residents of a homeless camp in Lakewood, NJ and its connection to the growing number of tent cities across the country. See our Facebook page for more information -- and don't forget to "Like" us.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Ocean County should step up

The Rev. Steve Brigham states the obvious -- that Ocean County needs shelter space. Will Ocean County listen?

The Tent City Project is an artistic look at human rights issues facing residents of a homeless camp in Lakewood, NJ and its connection to the growing number of tent cities across the country. See our Facebook page for more information -- and don't forget to "Like" us.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Saving AC from its neighbors

Gov. Chris Christie has assigned the Department of Health and Human Serviced to bring southern counties together to keep Atlantic City from being a dumping ground for the homeless.

He said last week that
“Essentially, what Atlantic County is telling me is, ‘Why should we be responsible for other places’ homeless?’ Atlantic City, in particular, cannot be a place where all the homeless are being sent,” he said. “It’s not fair, and it’s not right. Atlantic City is trying to revitalize, and some of the homeless are contributing to the crime in Atlantic City.”
Bill Southrey told during a visit to the Atlantic City Rescue Mission last month that the 270-bed shelter is almost always nearly full, and that many of those seeking shelter are from outside the area. Other southern counties, along with Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania suburbs, rid themselves of their homeless populations by placing them on buses and shipping them east. These tend to be the homeless in most need of services and many end up causing trouble in AC.

A tourist couple was murdered in June by a homeless man and others homeless people have been involved in criminal activity.

The bad press has the people who run the city worried -- and by run the city I mean not just the elected government but the casinos. This concern has caught the governor's attention, which may result in some changes.

The big question: What kind of changes? It is not enough to move the homeless to a new location. The short-term solution is to find housing for the homeless and make sure there are support services in place to help them remain housed.

Deeper changes need to happen, however, if we are not to create a revolving door of homeless individuals. The problem is endemic to corporate capitalism, which chews up resources -- whether they be petroleum, water or people -- and asks society to clean up the mess. That means we either need to reform capitalism or move to an economic system that takes the social good into account and makes the impact on people and the environment paramount in all decisions.

If that sounds like socialism or social democracy, so be it. Our religious devotion to markets has never made a lot of sense, given that free markets are far from free. Government has always imposed rules on the flow of goods and money; the current rules have been written by and for corporations, allowing them to privatize their gains while socializing their losses, whether it be pushing the cost of addressing homelessness, pollution or the financial meltdown onto taxpayers. This distorts the the calculus used to gauge costs and benefits, inflating profits, protecting shareholders and board members and leaving the rest of us holding the bag.

The Atlantic City Rescue Mission needs both help and protection, but that can only be a first step. Addressing the failure of corporate capitalism must be part of the solution.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A visit from the Vatican

Photo by Sherry Rubel
Bishop Zygmunt Zimowski, the pontifical council of health care ministry, visited Tent City in July, to give words of encouragement. Here he's pictured with the Rev. Steven Brigham and his son Steve.

The Tent City Project is an artistic look at human rights issues facing residents of a homeless camp in Lakewood, NJ and its connection to the growing number of tent cities across the country. See our Facebook page for more information -- and don't forget to "Like" us.

In These Times: Evicting the Homeless

My piece on Tent City in Lakewood -- Evicting the Homeless -- came out earlier this month in print in In These Times and is up now on the magazine Website.

Crossposted from Channel Surfing.

The Tent City Project is an artistic look at human rights issues facing residents of a homeless camp in Lakewood, NJ and its connection to the growing number of tent cities across the country. See our Facebook page for more information -- and don't forget to "Like" us.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Crosspubbed from Channel Surfing:

Angelo Villanueva, a stone mason, went from making $35 an hour doing brick and stone work on new buildings, to repointing older buildings to occasional work, until he had no income and lost his housing.

He ended up in Tent City in Lakewood about a year ago.

He told me he never expected to be out of work, that he always would be able to rely on his hands to make a living. That, unfortunately, is not the case.

Villanueva's story is not unusual. As Peter S. Goodman points out.
You can easily meet people confronting such circumstances at food banks, homeless shelters, and in welfare offices. It used to be that those who landed in such straits tended to present a complex assortment of problems, from substance abuse to mental illness. More and more, people have been sliding into such states because of one dominant problem: They can't find work.
The American economy remains in a funk. Forget the chatter that you're hearing about a nascent recovery. Ignore signs of a housing market rebound. The only number that matters is the jobs number -- or, more accurately, the without a job number. It is an indication that, despite the talk on the campaign trail and among the chattering classes on television, that there is something fundamentally wrong with American capitalism.

The economy is creating jobs, but not nearly enough to keep up with population growth and far from the number needed to put the millions who have lost their jobs back to work in something resembling their previous job.

"The horrendous job market is not a political story," says Peter S. Goodman. "It is a national emergency playing out in slow motion, a catastrophe that has come to dominate life in millions of American homes."
The persistent shortage of paychecks has seeped into our aspirations and made them smaller. It has eroded the basic American understanding about the supposed rewards of trying hard, getting educated and looking for work -- a formula too many people have been following only to wind up destitute, discouraged and dispossessed.
More than one in six are out of work or working at jobs well below what they think they should have, and an obscene number -- 5.4 million -- have been out of work for months. And that has forced them to do things they never thought they'd do, like visit the local food pantry, a soup kitchen or something more dire, like sleeping in the woods.

What we appear to be going through is a tectonic shift. Our economy is not sustainable. We value the wrong things, and have put ourselves on a collision course with environmental and economic catastrophe. The economic and political elites either refuse to see what is happening, or they don't care.

In the short term, we need a massive jobs bill -- one far larger than the president even imagines, but we also need to shift away from the unfettered capitalism that has pushed us so close to the precipice. We should be identifying the goods and services that we believe are human rights -- housing, food, health care -- and ensure that they are available to all who want or need them, outside the markets. Access to healthy food or to food in general should not depend upon where you live, nor should access to doctors and a roof and a bed.

We are long past the time for change.
The Tent City Project is an artistic look at human rights issues facing residents of a homeless camp in Lakewood, NJ and its connection to the growing number of tent cities across the country. See our Facebook page for more information -- and don't forget to "Like" us.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Ledger editorial gets it right on housing

The Star-Ledger's editorial today hits the governor pretty hard on his plan to siphon off federal housing aid to balance the state's budget.

The editorial tells the story of Lamasha Crooks and Cherrelle Alexander, who found he selves homeless, victims of an economy that has shed jobs and a government that has shredded its safety net. Multiply their stories "thousands of times over and you’ll have an idea of the housing crisis in New Jersey, one of the most expensive places to live in the United States."

Which makes Gov. Chris Christie’s money grab of housing dollars all the more unconscionable: $161 million specifically collected from developers for low-cost housing and deposited in housing trust funds, and another $75 million intended for foreclosure relief from a federal and state settlement with mortgage providers.

All will disappear into state coffers, to plug holes in a smoke-and-mirrors budget that magically produces tax cuts. For a manufactured “comeback.”

Just don’t think, for a second, it comes without a cost. In other comebacks, in other dreams.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Protesting housing polices in Lakewood

Photos from yesterday's protest in Lakewood by Lead -- Lakewood Equalitarians Against Discrimination. Photos by Sherry Rubel.

Fire destroys tent in Lakewood

Photo by Sherry Rubel
A fire destroyed an empty tent in Tent City in Lakewood yesterday, as advocates held a protest across Cedar Bridge Avenue in the township public housing complex.
Photo by Sherry Rubel
Steven Brigham, 23, son of the Tent City’s founder, the Rev. Steven A. Brigham, saw gray smoke rising from the fringes of the camp about 6:15 p.m. and went to investigate, encountering flames engulfing the tent, he said.

A 12-foot-high wood frame with a tarp thrown over the top provided shelter for the tent underneath, he said.

“There was a little scare because there were sheets piled up in the center of the tent,” he said. He yelled, but there were no signs anyone was there, he said.

A Lakewood firefighter who arrived quickly doused the flames with a fire extinguisher and found no one inside, he said.

The fire is under investigation, but the elder Brigham views it as part of a larger pattern of harassment of the camp.

“There's no good reason for anybody to have a fire today on a 95-degree day, you want to stay cool, you don't want a fire,” the Rev. Brigham said. “So it's a little suspicious that this fire happened at the exact same time we're going across the street to hold a rally.”

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Rhode Island takes the lead on homeless rights

Rhode Island is doing something no other state in the nation has been willing to do: guarantee the rights of its homeless population. According to an Associated Press brief in The New York Times, the "Homeless Bill of Rights," which is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Lincoln Chafee,
would guarantee a person the right to use public sidewalks, parks and transportation as well as public buildings “without discrimination on the basis of his or her housing status.” It also guarantees a “reasonable expectation of privacy” with respect to personal belongings.
Thanks to Michael Redmond for the headsup on this story.

The Tent City Project is an artistic look at human rights issues facing residents of a homeless camp in Lakewood, NJ and its connection to the growing number of tent cities across the country. See our Facebook page for more information -- and don't forget to "Like" us.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Second arrest, same charge for Minister Steve

The Rev. Steve Brigham, who oversees the Tent City homeless camp in Lakewood, was arrested again Tuesday on a second set of charges related to an attempt to evict another resident.

According to The Asbury Park Press,
Just hours after the Rev. Steven Brigham was released from Ocean County Jail in Toms River for evicting a 50-year-old woman from the camp, he was back in the jail on similar charges related to an incident at the camp Monday involving the eviction of a 39-year-old man, police Detective Capt. Paul Daly said Wednesday.

Brigham, 52, was arrested at the encampment off Cedar Bridge Avenue at South Clover Street at about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday when police arrived with a warrant on charges of witness tampering and vandalism related to the eviction of the man a day earlier.

Brigham said Wednesday that he evicted the man because he was using drugs and being disruptive in the camp.

“He is a heroin addict who had been stealing in the camp,” Brigham said. “We asked him to leave, but he wouldn’t leave, so we took down his tent. He told police that I was intimidating him and that I was telling him that if he said something to the police, I would do something to him, which is totally false, totally trumped-up charges.”
The man who made the accusations was back in the camp today and told our fimmmaker Jack Ballo that accusations about drug use and theft were false and that he stood by the report he filed with police.

We'll keep you posted.

The Tent City Project is an artistic look at human rights issues facing residents of a homeless camp in Lakewood, NJ and its connection to the growing number of tent cities across the country. See our Facebook page for more information -- and don't forget to "Like" us.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Police visit Tent City

The Rev. Steve Brigham was in good spirits today when I arrived at Tent City in Lakewood.

The founder of the camp, known to residents as Minister Steve, was being interviewed by News 12 New Jersey as I approached, a day after an attempted eviction of a Tent City resident landed him in jail.  (Photos by Sherry Rubel)

He explained his side of the story to News 12 and, as we (News 12, the Tent City Project team and some of the residents) walked into the camp from Cedar Bridge Avenue, two unmarked police cars came barrelling through the entrance and sped down the path into the main encampment -- refusing to slow down despite there being Tent City residents in their way.

One resident shouted angrily after them and the rest of us rushed to the camp's center to see what was happening. Police then set up a perimeter, blocking off a large area and searched one of the tents, removing what looked like a bag of baseball bats. Police on the scene wouldn't comment.

Brigham had been charged with witness intimidation and vandalism after he sliced up a tent near the entrance to the compound. That much is agreed upon. The rest remains murky.

According to The Asbury Park Press, police say they arrested Brigham on Monday "after he cut up the tent of a another camper because she talked to police earlier in the day about potential illegal activity there."
Steven “Rev. Steve” Brigham, 52, was arrested around 5 p.m. Monday after police returned to the encampment because a 50-year-old female resident called them to report Brigham was cutting up her tent and forcing her out of the wooded area known as “Tent City,” located off Cedar Bridge Avenue and South Clover Street, according to Detective Capt. Paul Daly. The woman alleged the eviction was retribution because she was seen talking to police investigators earlier in the day, Daly said.

“Brigham and others confronted her because she was talking to investigators earlier in the day. He told her to leave, and when she returned a little later Brigham was cutting up her tent,” Daly said.
The early Press article lacked Brigham's response -- an error rectified after the reporter visited the camp and talked with Minister Steve. During the interview (I'll post a transcript of Steve's comments later), "Brigham admitted he evicted the woman and cut up her tent. ... but denied that her talking to police was the reason."
He said the woman was involved in illegal activities and was disruptive in the camp. “It’s the only way to get rid of it (the tent),” Brigham said about cutting up the tent. He spoke on about the incident after he was released Tuesday from Ocean County Jail on bond. “These charges are bogus. These charges are false. These charges are made up. She is just saying whatever she can to stay in Tent City and do whatever she wants,” Brigham said.
Police told the Press that the woman accused Brigham of evicting her, because Brigham "doesn’t want anyone cooperating with the police." That charge, he said, was “Totally erroneous."
She called (police) on another drug addict (in Tent City) yesterday and we took down his tent too,” Brigham said. “I told her we do not call the police because we can handle matters within the camp. Every time the police come down here to Tent City, it is going on our record, and when we go to court they are going to list all these things against us. We’ve got to minimize the police interference when it’s not critical.”
What the Press piece ignores, howerver, is the larger issue raised by Brigham -- that of the camp's relationship with the Township of Lakewood. The town sued to close the camp, but a judge ruled that the residents had a right to survive and, given the lack of shelter space in Ocean County, it had to stay open. Brigham and several camp residents have filed a class action suit against Lakewood and the county accusing them of violating the state constitution's guarantee that citizens have a right to survive -- a "right to safety and to life" -- attorney Jeffrey Wild, who is representing the homeless in the suit, told me today.

The police involvement is part of a larger pattern of harrassment, Brigham says, that has included towing residents' vehicles and the disabled bus Brigham used for his home, the dumping of wood chips at the end of an emergency exit path and other inconveniences. The harrassment, he says, is retribution for his challenge to the township's housing policies, which have resulted in money being funneled to the large Orthodox Jewish community in the township. He calls it "segregated housing" -- though it is unclear whether the alleged imbalance in housing distribution has happened because of political decisions or because of the demographic composition of the community (between 40 percent and 50 percent are Orthodox Jews).

In any case, it is clear that both Lakewood and Ocean County -- among other New Jersey municipalities and county governments -- have failed the state's growing homeless population.

The Tent City Project is an artistic look at human rights issues facing residents of a homeless camp in Lakewood, NJ and its connection to the growing number of tent cities across the country. See our Facebook page for more information -- and don't forget to "Like" us.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Why we do this

I've been trying to come up with a simple explanation for why we are engaged in the Tent City Project that gets beyond what I think are the obvious artistic possibilities and offers a shorthand of the human reasons. This column by Marion Wright Edelman, an advocate for children and anti poverty causes, offers a glimpse into what attracted me -- and I believe both Sherry and Jack, as well -- to Lakewood.

Edelman describes a report from UNICEF on child poverty that

showed the United States ranks second out of 35 developed countries on the scale of what economists call “relative child poverty” with 23.1 percent of its children living in poverty. Only Romania ranked higher.

It is, as she points out, "another shameful reminder" of what "economist Sheldon Danziger put it":
“Among rich countries, the U.S. is exceptional. We are exceptional in our tolerance of poverty.”

It's this quotation that, for me, sums up some of my motivation. I am hoping that, through our collaborative art project, we can break down some of that tolerance.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Campers as a canary in the coal mine

From Channel Surfing (The photos are by Hank Kalet):

The population at Lakewood's tent city encampment is growing. When I talked with the Rev. Steve Brigham last month during my first visit, he told me he anticipated growth -- from about 70 then to about 100 by July -- but based on conversations today, he could be underestimating things.

Part of the issue is a lack of shelter space in Ocean County and the aggressive efforts of municipal and county officials to close down the smaller encampments that dot the area. That has resulted in a large number of people having little choice but to arrive in Lakewood hoping that Brigham can find them a tent.

William, who arrived early this morning with his girlfriend Lisa, is a house painter who works seasonably in Seaside Heights -- doing most of his work in the winter when the hotels are closed. Once they opened, he lost his job and the ability to pay his rent. They moved in with a friend in Freehold, but it turned out the friend was bipolar and off his medication and he began threatening them.

So they left and moved into tent city.

Sheridan lost his job as a cook in Atlantic City, one he held for 22 years, when he found out he was bipolar. After trouble with the various social services -- he thought he would be able to enter a program in Asbury Park but that fell through -- he also found himself in Lakewood.

Today was my third visit down, part of a project I am working on with photographer Sherry Rubel and filmmaker Jack Ballo. I'm writing a long poem (and doing some magazine features) and we'll present the multimedia collaborative when it's done.

In the meantime, I'll do what I can to draw attention to the structural economic problems of which tent cities like the one in Lakewood are symptoms. Officially, there are 645,000 homeless people on any given day in the United States and about 3.5 million who are homeless at some point annually. That figure is the number of individuals who access resources or services through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The number does not include a variety of others who lack housing, including about 660,000 children considered un-housed but not in the HUD system and about 55,000 veterans not covered by HUD. And for the most part, the numbers also do not include those living in tent city encampments.

The Lakewood encampment is one of hundreds that have cropped up across the country, most of which – like the one in Lakewood – predate the 2008 banking collapse. Their existence offers a stark reminder that the gross economic inequality that we have come to accept as a larger society has very real impacts and the housing industry, by chasing every dollar, has priced large numbers out of the market.

The response from Lakewood -- and from other towns, like Denver -- has been to criminalize the encampments and the homeless in general, rather than take steps to expand and improve the shelter and affordable housing systems.

Capitalism is the culprit here, or at least capitalism as practice in the United States. Our focus on winners and losers, on profits at all costs and our unwillingness to admit that our economic actions -- whether we are talking about buying an iPod, building a house or buying produce -- has its impacts. The corporate control we have come to accept has left us powerless to understand our own economy.

We are, as Don -- a man who helps out by bringing food and clothing by the camp periodically -- says, one catastrophe and a few weeks or a couple of months away from ending up in a tent in Lakewood ourselves.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Anti-camping law targets homeless

The Denver City Council voted 9-4 to impose an urban camping ban last week -- a move "that specifically targets homeless people sleeping on the streets and one that critics say simply criminalizes homelessness."

Critics point out that the city's shelters already are overburdened, that there is no way to house everyone living on the streets. Instead of finding ways to expand housing opportunities, the city is looking to chase the homeless from public view.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Ocean County's homeless on the move

Two small homeless encampments off Route 37 in Toms River were uprooted this week -- another example of how the lack of adequate housing and shelter space leaves too many vulnerable.

As reported by Toms River Patch, "the move was prompted by the owners of the properties where the two encampments exist — near the bus station south of Water Street and in the wooded area between James Street and Route 37 near Route 166." The camps were on private property -- unlike in Lakewood, where the camp is on publicly owned land.

Social Services was brought in to assist the homeless.

Meredith Sheehan, supervisor of social work at the Ocean County Board of Social Services, confirmed there was an outreach made to provide information about services to people who qualify. "Anyone who may have come in was seen by a worker here to determine if they were eligible for our services. If they were eligible, we have provided temporary shelter."

Those that applied for assistance were granted help in the form of housing and various programs for the duration of at least six months to one year, depending on the specific individuals circumstances, Williams said.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Where are they supposed to go now?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Housing money sleight-of-hand

A story in The New York Times points out that numerous states facing large deficits are raiding settlement money originally designated for at-risk homeowners. The upshot is a potential that more homeowners will lose their homes -- and put more pressure on an already burdened relief sector.

There is not enough housing for low-income people as it is, and a spike in foreclosures can only increase demand at a time when supply remains stagnant. The money should be used to keep at-risk homeowners in their homes and for states to take over toiled properties nd rent them back to those being foreclosed on -- albeit at a huge discount.

It is imperative, if we won't to maintain a functioning middle- and working-class, that we keep homeowners from being dispatched to the streets and woods.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sunday required reading

A column by Dean Baker and Kevin Hassett in The New York Times sums up the employment crisis facing the nation -- one that is playing itself out across so many other sectors, including housing. The growing incidence of long-term unemployment, or unemployment lasting more than six months, is creating a vast pool of unemployable order. It is, they say "nothing short of a national emergency."

Millions of workers have been disconnected from the work force, and possibly even from society. If they are not reconnected, the costs to them and to society will be grim.

Tent City in Lakewood, with its mix of the unemployed and unemployable, offer a glimpse into a potential American future, one in which our land of promise slowly slides away and we more and more come to resemble out third-world neighbors.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Christie discusses new low-income housing plan

Gov. Chris Christie has not been a champion of the state's existing affordable housing regime. The governor has moved to disband the state Council on Affordable Housing, planning to hand the council's responsibilities to the state Department of Community Affairs, allow towns more freedom to develop their own plans and, bizarrely, to take the nearly quarter of a billion dollars in housing trust fund money to balance his budget.

So housing advocates can be forgiven for being cautious in their response to his comments yesterday.
The proposal, outlined today by the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, would change the way the state administers its annual $18 million federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit, a subsidy meant to encourage development of affordable rentals.

"My administration is committed to expanding housing options for our most vulnerable citizens as part of our long-term, comprehensive plan to combat homelessness," Christie said in a statement.

The agency did not release the language of the proposal, but said it would cap the cost of projects eligible for the credit, and limit construction of affordable housing in high poverty areas.

It would also award developers for building houses or apartments for families who are now homeless. Also under the plan, 40 percent of the tax credit awards would be granted in urban areas "to guarantee urban project development."
The big news, however, is the governor's stated intention to use the new rules to "give poor residents a better chance to live in towns with high performing schools."

According to a press release from the Department of Community Affairs,
The rule also proposes incentives to locate developments proximate to areas of high job growth and excellent schools.

“The changes will create opportunities for children to flourish in high achieving schools while greatly expanding parents’ ability to find employment proximate to their residence” explained Acting DCA Commissioner Richard E. Constable, III, who is Chair of the HMFA Board and Co-chair of the Interagency Council on Homelessness.
If the new rules produce housing -- which is desperately needed -- and ensures that the housing is spread fairly throughout the state, as the governor says, then kudos to him and his administration. But given the history of affordable housing in the state -- i.e., political unwillingness to allow construction of low-income and even moderate-income housing in many towns through the use of exclusionary zoning -- I'm not particularly optimistic.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Kozol still right: Too many are homeless

I am rereading Jonathan Kozol's important book on homelessness, Rachel and Her Children. It was published in 1988, during the end of the Reagan administration, before the massive dislocations caused by NAFTA and the ramp up of the so-called FIRE sector of the American economy (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate). Kozol, among many things, reminds us that quantifying the homeless problem is nearly impossible and very likely counterproductive:
Any search for the "right number" carries the assumption that we may at last arrive at an acceptable number. There is no acceptable number. Whether the number is 1 million or 4 million or the (Reagan) administration's estimate of less than a million, there are too many homeless people in America. 
This comment from Kozol, from p. 10 of the 1988 paperback, remains valid 24 years after the book's publication, a sad commentary on our society.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Little cushion

An IMF study reported on by The Huffington Post today should give all of us pause. Americans are buried in debt and, because of it, may be just one step away from financial catastrohe.

Today, Americans owe some $704 billion in credit card debt, and more than that in both auto loans and student borrowing.
Many Americans may not even realize the extent to which debt underpins their lifestyle. A number of analysts argue that many Americans who consider themselves middle class are in fact leading a precarious, over-leveraged existence, with few savings and little financial cushion in case of emergency.
Think about it. Most of us are just one health emergency -- cancer, a heart attack, some disabling injury, a lost job, a fire, etc. -- away from losing everything and ending up on a relative's couch, or in a tent in the woods.

Some perspective

The National  Coalition for the Homeless issued a report two years ago that bears some consideration. The report, Tent Cities in America: A Pacific Coast Report, looks at the tent city phenomenon on the West Coast -- outlining how the tent cities operate, the organizing efforts in the encampments and the lack of affordable housing.

According to a press release from the NCH:
Home foreclosures, unemployment, and the regional poverty rates continue to rise, as newly homelessness families see a double digit increase. 44% of people experiencing homeless in America are unsheltered (USHUD 2009). A growing number of unsheltered Americans are congregating in tent cities for safety, community and as locations of last resort.

“Tent Cities are American’s de facto waiting room for affordable and accessible housing. The idea of someone living in a tent in this country says little about the decisions made by those who dwell within and so much more about our nation’s inability to adequately respond to our fellow residents in need.”  -Neil Donovan, National Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director.
The report is now two years old, but the findings remain valid. There is not enough housing and the use of traditional shelters -- human warehouses -- does little more than demean the people seeking to put a roof over their heads.

As one Seattle tent city resident said:
“In the absence of proper shelter, it is the basic right of any living being to construct a temporary one.”

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Jail beats the streets for one homeless man

A Georgia man hurled a brick through a window because going to jail was better than remaining hungry and on the streets. According to The Huffington Post:
Faced with more nights on the street, Brown said he thought lofting the brick through the building would give him at least a few hours in a place where "someone's going to offer me a sandwich and drink."

Robert Marbut, a national homelessness consultant, said it's rare for homeless offenders to spend more than a night in two in custody, let alone almost a year. He said there needs to be more alternative sentences to teach homeless offenders about life skills, hygiene and nutrition.

"That shows you how wacky things have gotten when we don't have as a society an intermediate program," Marbut said.

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