Tent City to Close; Residents Will Receive Year of Housing
Camp to close, residents to get housing as part of consent agreement reached Friday afternoon
Residents of Tent City will be given housing for at least a year as part of a consent agreement that will also allow for the permanent closure of the Lakewood tent encampment.
Superior Court Judge Joseph Foster announced the arrangement after meeting behind closed doors with representatives for Ocean County, Lakewood Township and Tent City for about two hours Friday.
Left unresolved, however, is a pending lawsuit against Ocean County and the Ocean County Board of Social Services by Ocean County's homeless and the Atlantic City Rescue Mission. A hearing on that suit, which calls on the county to provide shelter for the homeless within the county, will occur May 3 and, if not resolved, will go to trial on Aug. 19.
Lakewood had sued Tent City founder, Steve Brigham and the homeless residents in 2011, hoping to close the camp. A countersuit was filed shortly after on behalf of the homeless, which also named Ocean County, saying the lack of shelter space in the county made Tent City a shelter of last resort.
Judge Foster ruled in January 2012 that the camp could stay open, ordering that its population could not grow. He also ordered mediation.
In the meantime, the township filed numerous health and safety complaints against the camp, arrested Brigham on two occasions, and had been pushing for the camp to be closed. It dropped many of the complaints in recent weeks, leading to the potential agreement.
The consent arrangement, once approved, will result in a plan being developed for each resident of Tent City, including housing for at least a year. Solutions To End Poverty will work with the two sides to develop the plan. STEPS is an independent nonprofit agency that works with the poor.
Attorneys for the township and the homeless said they were satisfied with the decision, though the agreement still needs to be approved by the Lakewood Township Council and the residents of Tent City.
"What this accomplishes is the placement of the homeless in indoor housing and a sunset date for the closure of Tent City without further occupancy," Michael M. DeCicco, of Bathgate, Wegener & Wolf, who represented Lakewood, said after the hearing.
He said it meets the goals that Lakewood had established at the start of the litigation, more than a year ago, which was housing for the homeless and the "orderly closing of the camp so that Lakewood would have its property back."
He said the first step would be to conduct a census within the camp and to finalize the language of the consent agreement.
Jeffrey Wild, an attorney for Lowenstein Sandler, said after the hearing that the agreement is a good one.
"This case began years ago with a principle that nobody should have to live in the woods," he said. "It is outrageous that they do but they need someplace to live."
The solution, he said, is the right one because "nobody will be forced to leave Tent City unless they get a place that provides for at least one year of housing."
He said a settlement with Lakewood, however, will not address the larger issue of Ocean County's responsibility to the homeless.
"It is significant that this settlement of principle does not address the lack of a shelter in Ocean County," he said.
He added later, as he addressed a crowd of reporters and residents outside the courthouse, that the county needed to act or the suit against Ocean County would go to trial.
"We believe with reasonable certainty that the law says the county must have a shelter of last resorts," he said. "Until that happens, this case will go on."
Before the hearing, about two dozen protesters marched outside the Ocean County Courthouse on Hooper Avenue, many holding signs that said "Speak for the Homeless" and "Save Tent City."
They were outside to make their voices heard before a hearing on the fate of the Tent City encampment before Superior Court Judge Joseph Foster. The encampment has triggered passionate responses on both sides of the issue and has been the subject of court review for more than a year.
Outside, some were residents of the Tent City homeless camp, others wee from advocacy groups like HELP and Clergy for Workforce Housing.
"For me, it's a personal issue," said Marilyn Miller of Toms River. "As a child, I was almost homeless many times but for the grace of god."
Rosemary Bagwell, of Middletown, says there are not enough resources being focused on the issue of homelessness.
"In a rich country like America, there is no reason for this," she said. She questioned why the governor has not put aside more money to aid the homeless.
He's doling out a lot of money," she said about Gov. Chris Christie's plan for post-Sandy recovery funds. "There's no reason why something can't be done for the homeless."
Inside the courthouse, a crowd packed the hallway outside the courtroom. Advocates for Tent City mingled elbow-to-elbow with members of the Orthodox Jewish community, many of whom want the camp shut down.
"The message is not 'get lost,'" said Abe Rose. It's 'get help.' There are lots of resources. We're willing to work with them but they're not willing to be put by the county shelters."
Outside the courthouse after the hearing, Brigham said the camp was only part of the issue. He said the tents were a last resort because there were no shelters available.
"Tent cities are an abomination," he said outside the courthouse. No one is saying they are the answer, he said, but people need housing. "We should not have to have them."
Brigham said he was satisfied with the agreement but added that there was no reason that this could not have happened sooner.
"We could have had that consent order form the get go," he said. "The judge had said last year that the government has a responsibility to get a shelter."
He expected things to remain "status quo" until at least May 3.