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.