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.

  • Send me an e-mail.
  • Read poetry at The Subterranean.
  • Certainties and Uncertainties a chapbook by Hank Kalet, can be ordered here.
  • Suburban Pastoral, a chapbook by Hank Kalet, available here.

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