In Camden, New Jersey, the homeless community represent themselves as individuals separate from personalities, but together on a mission to find their ‘own place.’
“I don’t want to stay here for the rest of my life,” says Clinton Lewis, 35, who dorms nights at Joseph’s House homeless shelter. “I’m embarrassed being here.”
Lewis originally stayed in an apartment in Gloucester City until his landlord, whom he claims was “prejudiced,” threw him onto the streets three weeks ago. He suffers from dyslexia and a developmental learning disability. His family is unable to provide him housing space.
But like Lewis, the homeless community of Camden would prefer a temporary roof, running water and a consistent access to food rather than braving the harsh realities of outdoor living.
Friendship and community at ‘tent city’
Homeless individuals like Abraham Brown, 55, share Lewis’ determination to find a home. As a former tent city resident, Brown understands the value of personal privacy and shelter.
But he was appreciative of the “family support” that his friends at 10th Street Tent City gave him through the years of his drug addiction.
“I had a lot of good times,” said Brown. “I had bad times, too, but there were more good times than bad times. But I will miss the people. It’s still apart of me – that’s why I still come back here.”
Brown plans on entering an eight-month drug rehab program in Fort Lauderdale, Florida to kick his thirty-year crack/cocaine addiction, and eventually, find a job to buy a home.
Originally from Moorestown, New Jersey, and a graduate of Moorestown High School, Brown attributes a life of “running the streets” as a young, sixteen year old teenager to his chronic state of homelessness. He bought all of his drugs in the City of Camden. He also lost his home and family to support his drug habit.
Brown joined a long list of drug addicts, mentally ill or jobless individuals who end up homeless and are sent to Camden for assistance.
In 2011, a NJ.com/Star-Ledger report showed that 12,825 homeless people were counted across the state of New Jersey, which was a 6.6% rise in the past two years.
The tent city residents are comprised of Camden city residents, but members are also from towns such as Blackwood, Franklinville and Moorestown. They come to Camden to receive Camden County services. Their own towns do not offer needs based assistance to the homeless.
Brown found assistance through New Visions Homeless Day Shelter, and more recently, Joseph’s House. Before this period, he joined fellow homeless individuals at the10th Street Tent City.
The tent cities gave Brown much needed shelter and privacy away from the congestion of homeless shelters.
But while Brown sough privacy at tent city, he considered that staying for a longer period of time would stagnate his growth, and prevent him from finding permanent housing.
“You could do whatever you wanted with it [tent],” said Brown. “It was yours. I was happy to be living in a tent, but there are more minuses than pluses in tent city”
Environmental and drug factors that affect Camden’s tent cities
Plans to move out Camden’s tent cities first broke news four years ago. In April 2010, a 6abc report cited that Camden County Community Development was trying to transition the homeless into sustainable housing. “We realize this is not going to be a 1 week or 2 week process, this is probably going to be a 2 year process,” said Gino Lewis of Camden County Community Development in the 6abc report.
The issue became a widespread debate among those in the homeless community and non-profit organizations in Camden. Some believed that the tent cities were being pushed out in order to create new space for the city development processes.
Brown attests that several environmental factors increased the risk of stay at tent city, which may have lead to the original decision to evict.
“The bad thing about it was that there was no running water and you had to buy your own heat,” said Brown. “There were also fire risks. There’s no lighting so some people had to use candles or externals, and if something gets knocked over then, “boom, flames!”
Trash clean up and sanitation was other issue with Brown’s tent city. 10th Street Tent City is cleaner than its neighboring communities in North Camden. They maintain an organized trash pile roughly one hundred feet from the tent site.
But the city has yet to clear the trash.
Jessica Franzini, project coordinator of the NJ Tree Foundation and co-founder of Camden SMART – a city wide environmental initiative – cited that the city has left the tent cities untreated for several reasons.
“I think the city stays hands off because they recognize that people need to live there,” says Franzini. “Also, because those people don’t pay taxes, it’s possible the city’s time is better spent improving trash conditions in tax payer communities.”
Other issues at these tent city sites – including North Camden/Admiral Wilson’s Boulevard site – are notoriously known among the homeless community as being heavy drug using sites.
“It’s in all of the tent cities,” says Brown. “There are addicts – heroin and crack users –alcoholics, and people are going to try to capitalize on that.”
Recently, the City of Camden informed 10th Street Tents that they will receive an additional eviction notice by May 12th. When that time arises, the homeless in all tent cities in Camden will have no choice but to move.
But for Brown, the evictions may stop detrimental behaviors that persist.
“They should [evict],” says Brown. “A lot of them [homeless] stay in the tents and it’s allowing them to use the drugs, stagnant their growth and not become apart of society. Their main thing is getting a hustle so that they can use drugs and do the same thing over. You can’t prosper that way.”
Safety concerns at North Camden’s tent city
North Camden’s tent city is cocooned between the surrounding communities and commuter highway I676 underneath the highway overpass.
The accumulation of trash includes old rages/clothes, wood, plastic and walls of broken tree branches.
Pastor Michael McCue, 54, a Priest of Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, works in North Camden and has taken groups to donate to the North Camden tent city on several occasions, including high school and college students on volunteer retreats.
Pastor McCue recalls that recently, residents of the tent city in North Camden requested that his congregation stop visiting, and even blocked off entrances to the site. The reasoning behind it is still unknown.
“It seems like some of the people in tent city have taken themselves out of the mainstream,” says Pastor McCue. “It [tent city] is definitely very unsanitary and there is a lot of drug usage – not everybody obviously.”
But many homeless residents still shy away from the tent city in North Camden.
Dale Jones, 56, was a former heroin user living in a tent city near his hometown of Franklinville. Last February, Jones was released from a county jail where he spent five months. He spent an additional four months at a halfway house in Camden for special services.
“Before I got into the city, I actually went out and bought a tent,” said Jones, “but I stayed down in the Franklinville area. I didn’t want to come up here [Camden] to live.”
Jones was sent up to Camden for drug rehab, evaluation and temporary housing at Volunteers of America, which only has 80 beds.
In rehab, Jones was told by his acquaintances on the issues surrounding the unsafe areas of the tent city in North Camden. Activities that surrounded North Camden’s tent city included heavy drug usage, fighting and robberies.
“It’s very dangerous,” said Jones. “When I was in the halfway house, there were several guys from North Camden – even guys still in their active addiction – telling me, ‘man, it’s crazy where I’m at. It’s like Beirut back in the 80s.’ ”
“Some places were more dangerous than others,” said Jones “and during my addiction I was running in and out of there. After dark, it’s a whole different world.”
Finding reform solutions for Camden’s residents
Camden has been a struggling city since businesses cut jobs between the 60s and 70s.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in August of 2013, Camden’s unemployment rate reached 16.6%. The unemployment rate is nearly double the rate of the entire state.
Many agree that the city, county, and state must be held accountable for providing solutions that address the needs of the homeless, such as temporary housing and safe conditions.
Ida Mayer is a registered nurse who previously worked at Ancora State Hospital. She feels that Camden should provide better solutions for the homeless.
“There are inadequate services to treat the chronic mentally ill and there are people who need addiction treatment services,” says Mayer. “Some of these people originally come from affluent suburbs”
Pastor McCue would like the City of Camden to create services that would build more temporary housing. Those programs, he insists, should reintegrate the homeless back into society.
“The city has promised money but it hasn’t always come through,” said McCue. “Budgets are always hard. But there needs to be more continued support so that people who are homeless don’t feel that they have no other options except for living in a tent. There are also mentally ill people who need active supervision.”
Abraham Brown asserts that the City of Camden must do a better job of providing a back-up plan to support evicted tent city residents. He is leaving behind his community in order to receive rehab assistance. His goal is to have a home again and be with his family.
Brown feels that the local government is responsible for the people. But he thinks that it is up to Camden’s homeless to take a proactive step as well.
This may mean moving out of the tent cities.
“It’s like the birds,” said Brown. “Birds hatch out of their eggs, they grow a little bit and the mother bird pushes the baby birds out. Those baby birds need to either fly, or they die. That’s what this is. And they are either going to die in society – not as a physical death – but they’re not going to grow. And we [homeless] need to grow mentally and spiritually.”