Lakewood, NJ felled its town square trees to drive away the homeless
LAKEWOOD — There are no trees left standing in Lakewood town square after the township chopped them down to discourage homeless people from congregating there.
The Lakewood Scoop first reported on the rapidly growing shore town's latest response to homelessness. Every tree came down on Aug. 8 at the recommendation of the Lakewood police Quality of Life Unit.
Mayor Raymond Coles told New Jersey 101.5 that residents were staying away from the public square. He said that despite portable toilets being available in the street, there were "folks defecating in between cars."
"I have been told that many residents and employees encountered harassment, catcalling, etc. when they came and left the building," Coles said. "Some of our female employees said they did not feel safe walking to their cars without a police officer to escort them."
And he believes the tree removal has made an impact. Police Captain Steve Allaire saw families in the square this past weekend, according to Coles.
"It seems to have helped alleviate the problem with town square. Employees seem more comfortable coming & going from work," Coles said. "I had a business owner call me to tell me he has seen a difference."
But the controversial remedy has received criticism from homeless advocates.
"I was aware that the blowback we have seen this week would occur," Coles said. "It would have been easier to just let the situation be, but no problem can ever be solved by ignoring it."
Minister Steven Brigham, head of Lakewood Outreach Ministry, told the Asbury Park Press that the township's solution was "extremely extreme." And he told NJ Spotlight News that a better solution would have been to put up portable toilets.
"Cutting down trees isn’t the answer to somebody having to go to the bathroom,” Brigham said.
It's not the first time Lakewood and Brigham have locked horns over homelessness.
Brigham founded Lakewood's infamous Tent City. For seven years, the encampment was home to over 100 homeless people. It was forced to close in 2014 following a court order.
Instead of living in tents or in the town square, the mayor told the Press that people experiencing homelessness can apply for Section 8 housing. In June, the state announced that 1,000 vouchers would be set aside for homeless individuals.
However, an email address is required to apply for a Section 8 voucher. Michael McNeil, director of Solutions to End Poverty Soon, said the non-profit is giving computer access to homeless people who want assistance. Coles said STEPS' computer room on South Clifton Avenue is funded by the township.
"Most homeless people do not have an email address," McNeil told the Press. "So we are setting up email addresses for them and assisting them through the process.”
So far, four people have successfully obtained vouchers through STEPS, according to Coles. The mayor said he hopes the people who were living in the town square choose to accept the help.
"Many will refuse to sign up for any assistance," said Coles. "There is no way we can force someone to accept our help. Lakewood is committed to continue to work to help our homeless residents get help if they will accept it and stay as safe as possible. That does not mean I will sacrifice the safety or well being of other residents."
In the meantime, the township plans to revitalize the town square this fall. It will include new plantings and new paint for the surrounding walls, according to Coles.