Former Lakewood Tent City homeless living in Howell woods
In 2015, a deal to pay rental assistance for about 60 homeless people — residents of Lakewood's infamous Tent City camp, demolished the year before — came to a close.
And Tent City Founder Minister Steven Brigham says no real solution was created — forcing some of those individuals who'd called Tent City home to relocate to woods off Route 9 in Howell Township.
"The township here has been friendly to us. They realize that the situation in the area. people can't afford a place to live at a low-wage job," Brigham said. He said "the powers that be" in Howell are being proactive and addressing the homeless issue the best they can.
"They're not evicting us off the side like most towns seem to do," Brigham said.
Nine individuals, both men and women, from the former Lakewood Tent City are living in the Howell encampment, according to Brigham.
Howell Township Municipal Manager Jeff Mayfield said the municipality is aware pockets of camps exist in many areas of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, not just in Howell, due to limited resources.
"We have met with several different organizations, faith-based nonprofits, some builders that are willing to get involved and possibly help if a plan can be developed," Mayfield said. Howell also has reached out to Monmouth County officials, who Mayfield said want to be involved in their next meeting.
"This is still an ongoing process. We really haven't come up with any long-term solutions, but that is our goal." Mayfield said. He said members of the town council agree there are still too many homeless with too few services available to them.
Mayfield also said further research is currently being done on some programs that might be able to help, but not necessarily remedy the issue of homelessness in the area.
"We had one larger-scale meeting with several people involved, including Mayor (William) Gotto and Councilman (Robert) Walsh, and we're waiting to plan another one. We want to get a little more information, so there's more topics on the table," Mayfield said.
Complaints and issues with the former Tent City — including concerns about alcohol and drugs, trash, and fires — eventually led to it being shut down. Brigham admits that in a cross section of any population, there will be people with issues, but added he believes it's the duty of Americans to help fellow citizens.
"Overall with 100 people living in the woods in Tent City ... it was a very peaceful community considering the situation and the number of people. This camp is extremely peaceful. It's extremely quiet," Brigham said.
Mayfield said the Township has not had any significant problems with the encampment and noted that Brigham has agreed to ensure it doesn't grow any larger.
"If it began to get out of control, they would have to be evicted," said Mayfield. He added, "Not Howell Township or any municipality can really appropriately handle such a large group that Lakewood had there for a while, and again, that just got difficult for them."
Brigham said the people living in the Howell encampment are usually in bed by 9 p.m. because they have to get up for work the next day.
"Some of them have day-work type jobs, but everybody is trying to pull their weight," Brigham said.
In the Monmouth-Ocean area, Brigham said, a person has to earn about $20 an hour to supply for basic needs of housing, food and transportation.
"Unless a single individual can make that kind of money, they're going to have to find some kind of options like a Tent City," Brigham said.
Brigham said the Howell encampment includes a chapel and a "Tree of Life" prayer garden to make it a community.
"Everybody chips in, everybody has their own little chores that they do," he said.
Brigham wants to see affordable housing that's not subsidized, that people can sustain with low-wage job.
The documentary Destiny's Bridge focuses on the alternatives of Tiny Homes for the homeless, and Brigham said advocates are doing their best to promote them.
"Standing in the way are zoning laws and building codes and things like that that most townships have in place, and they really need to change those types of laws so that there can be housing that people can afford at a lower-type wage job," Brigham said.
Destiny's Bridge also is the name of a program that Brigham said is being developed to incorporate Tiny Homes, but is more comprehensive.
"It teaches the homeless a trade that they can take with them out into the broader society," he said.
Brigham said that although Ocean County government spends money on programs, may of them are "Band-aids" and do not address all of the needs a homeless individual might have, such as addiction, mental illness or just low job skill.
Contact reporter Dianne DeOliveira at Dianne.DeOliveira@townsquaremedia.com.