On a recent warm, bright afternoon, Michael Berenzweig sat on a Rubbermaid storage bin, his back against a tree. Between the book and his lap was a tattered dictionary. On the leaves next to him, a mug of hot tea. Nearby, his wife of 40 years, Marilyn, talked about what she feeds their rescued junco, white king dove and two starlings caged in a separate tent.
“I give them organic rice and millet, maybe some wild mountain potatoes,” she said. “And worms.”
Not far through the trees, traffic can be seen moving along Cedar Bridge Avenue.
The vegan couple – she a textile designer in Manhattan, he a volunteer radio producer – moved here a few weeks ago, after Marilyn was laid off at a furniture design company, and sleeping on a couch at her daughter’s home in Queens became awkward after five months.
“I was talking to a friend who was a child of the Great Depression and he’s going on about all these families living in tents back then, and I kept thinking, “Gosh, I wouldn’t mind living in tents,’ ” said Marilyn Berenzweig, 59.
So the couple searched “tent communities” on the Internet, found the name of Steve Brigham – the unofficial founder of the camp here – and asked him if he had room for two more.
In a way, the Berenzweigs represent the best and the worst of a camp that, for three years, had been a thorn for township officials and a sanctuary for the homeless.
The pair are ideal tenants: pacifist, intellectual, hygienic and almost obsessively unobtrusive. Yet, they also reflect a major point of frustration among officials who argue that, instead of dwindling in size, the camp has only grown, largely because of outsiders drawn to its relative comforts.
“It seems to gain residents faster than this committee can get them out,” Mayor Steven Langert said at a recent Township Committee meeting. “It goes against the agreement we had with some of the leaders in that camp.”
Now it appears the situation has come to a head. Langert said the township attorney has just finished drafting court papers to “relocate” – he does not like to use the word “evict” – the 25 squatters on the township property.
Simultaneously, homeless advocates have geared up with their own defense of lawyers and academics. Earlier this month, some 10 religious and policy groups, from the Presbyterian Church of Toms River to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, came together to draft a mission statement. Called the Declaration of Unity, its main objective is to work with local and county officials in establishing the first “adequate” emergency shelter in Ocean County. But as a last resort, the coalition is willing to fight to prevent homeless eviction from public woods.
“I hope we are all on the same team,” said Jeffrey Wild, a lawyer who offers legal advice for the advocates and, through his synagogue, provides the camp with clothing, food and stoves. “If, and only if, we are not, then we will need to honor a basic legal principle: that under the New Jersey Constitution, New Jersey statutes and common sense, the first duty of government is to protect the safety of the people, and this duty includes an obligation to provide emergency shelter to the poor who have nowhere else to go.”
Wild said he drafted the declaration after seeing “common ground on an issue that historically has been very divisive.”
College students have also taken on advocacy roles. At the April 7 Ocean County Board of Freeholders meeting, three students presented nearly 800 signatures calling for the county to establish a Homeless Trust Fund under a state law that allows counties to use document-filing surcharges to build a coffer to fight homelessness
Langert said his intention is to not remove anyone from the camp without finding some sort of temporary housing first. Yet, housing options are becoming increasingly limited, advocates argue, because of rising unemployment and a sharp drop in available rooming and boarding homes. Several residents of the camp admit they don’t know where they will go if removed.
“I’m sure I’ll just go back into the woods, find another spot,” said Norman “Stormy” Cornelius, who has lived in the camp for three years and in the woods in Brick for more than five years before that. “I can go further back toward Pine Street that way. It’s nice over there.”
Langert said he told religious and community leaders at a recent clergy meeting that he supports starting a shelter in Lakewood.
At least one local official, however, has found little enthusiasm for the idea among the municipal and county politicians.
Ocean is one of about 10 counties in the state that have not started working on a 10-year plan recommended by the federal government to end homelessness. However, Donna E. Flynn, a spokeswoman for the freeholders, cited the Code Blue program, a county-backed operation that finds emergency shelter, such as a couple nights in a motel, for those in immediate need. County officials have also provided some homeless with bus passes to a shelter in Atlantic City.
At any given time, about 1,000 homeless people are in some sort of housing, whether it be motels, residential health care facilities, transitional housing or the 29 rooming homes in the county, said Jill Perez, director of the county’s Department of Human Services.
And Lakewood is not the only municipality struggling to find a homeless camp solution. Last week, Camden officials backed off a plan to close a similar commune after much protest from advocates. It only becomes harder to rectify, officials say, the more established the camps become.
“There are some people who choose to have that as a lifestyle,” Langert said. “Unfortunately, we can no longer take on the liability.”