In a town where burgeoning development has turned farms into near artifacts, could there be room for one more? They already have the seed for crops, chickens for eggs and two goats for milk. What the 35 tent dwellers need is their own plot of land, a few log cabins or trailers and some decent plumbing. It’s a radical idea, sure, but after more than five months of little visible progress since the township allotted money and orders to clear the squatters from the woods and find them affordable housing, it could be a realistic middle ground for those people with nowhere to go, advocates say.Here’s another one – though not so much a stepping stone as an endgame: give a homeless person a permanent apartment, no strings attached. It’s called Housing First.
The farming and Housing First concepts are examples of how grass-roots advocates are strategizing outside the lines as more people become homeless, less money is there to help them and two recent fires at the tent camps have heightened public scrutiny.
“Things have come to a head. It’s time to get something done,” said Connie Pascale, whose group, Clergy and People for Toms River Workforce Housing, has formed an offshoot to focus on the county’s homeless problem.
Yesterday, Lakewood Mayor Robert Singer visited a tent site for the first time. Describing the community of about 15 tents off Cedar Bridge Avenue as “rustic,” the mayor said he reached an agreement with the site’s primary advocate, Steve Brigham, that no more homeless people would move there. Brigham said he would do his best to not let the site expand.
The splinter group of Pascale’s, recently dubbed the End Chronic Homelessness Organization, or ECHO, has set its priorities on tapping into new funding sources, uniting other grass-roots efforts and promoting the Housing First model.
One attractive money option is a trust fund bill now before the governor that allows counties to use surcharges on document filings to build a coffer to fight homelessness. Though Gov. Jon S. Corzine has not yet signed the bill, counties such as Hudson and Mercer have passed resolutions supporting it, Pascale said. ECHO’s goal is to persuade Ocean County to do the same.
A call Wednesday to Freeholder Gerry Little, who is appointed the county Board of Freeholders’ liaison on homeless issues, went unreturned.
Another goal is to get official nonprofits to apply this month for some of the $10 million in federal stimulus cash that the state has for sheltering and rental assistance.
Housing First will likely be a harder sell. Singer and the organization, STEPS, he appointed and funded to handle the homelessness problem, have insisted that those people living in their boarding homes be clean and working or in programs to help them get there.
“If you put an active drug addict or alcoholic in a neighborhood, that’s certainly a concern,” Singer said.
Meanwhile, another newly assembled group is working on the farm concept and as ways to shelter and employ those in the woods or on the streets. Advocate Colin Lewis has a call in to the Ocean County Board of Realtors to spread the word to real estate agencies that he is looking for land.
And the group is still waiting to hear back from representatives of the Dover Woods group home on how many, if any, of the 22 rooms in the east wing they would be willing to reserve for the homeless, Lewis said.
A shelter is fine, Lewis said, however “we have to have that re-entry component.”
The group has, therefore, solicited organizations experienced in acclimating the homeless and ex-convicts back into to society with employment and social services. Two such nonprofits, HABcore and Redeem-Her, have toured Dover Woods and expressed interest, Lewis said.
Yet another option is for the township, through its state-funded Lakewood Development Corporation, to start a Clean Team project in which those people coming out of the woods could earn a wage by sweeping streets, cleaning off graffiti and emptying trash cans around business areas.
LDC Executive Director Russell Corby supports the idea but said that applying for the project was would have to wait until at least next year and would depend on a replenishment of revenues that have been mostly depleted by the recession.
Small progress has been made within the box as well.
STEPS, which could be getting another $50,000 on top of the $50,000 in the federal funds the township allotted in February, has secured four apartments in Lakewood and Neptune for tent dwellers with job skills. The one in Lakewood is ready to accommodate four such tenants, who will have to pay about $260 a month, STEPS head Mike McNeal said.
Dave Jones plans to move in shortly, having lived at the Cedar Bridge site since losing his warehouse job and apartment four months ago. Now working again in a stockroom, Jones told of his tent neighbors looking tirelessly for work in an effort to get an apartment like his.
“These guys want this; they want to get out,” he said.