The smoke that curls up from makeshift chimneys and the tarpaulins pulled tight over camping equipment at Tent City, the homeless encampment near the Jersey shore, testify to the harsh conditions of living in the woods in the dead of winter.
Those small comforts could have vanished this week under a plan by Lakewood officials to dismantle the camp as soon as Wednesday.
But the township is backing off — for now — a plan to tear down the camp and evict its 80 or so residents from the woods near a minor league baseball stadium.
The town issued 18 summonses to leaders of the camp last month and said they would dismantle Tent City by Wednesday if leaders didn’t do it on their own.
But Jeffrey Wild, a lawyer for the homeless, told The Associated Press on Monday that Lakewood officials have agreed not to act on their own, at least until after a court hearing in two weeks. An agreement letting the camp remain for now, signed by both sides, will go before a judge Wednesday.
The agreement says Lakewood will not undertake “any demolition, removal or other action by force of any kind” without permission from the homeless people’s lawyer, or a court order. The agreement also notes that Lakewood maintains its right to address the underlying conditions that promoted it to issue the summonses.
“This was the closest call yet, definitely,” said the Rev. Steven Brigham, the founder of the tent colony. “You can see the concern in peoples’ faces. They were afraid that the meager housing they have here was going to be taken away from them. To try to kick us out in the middle of winter with nowhere else to go — what does that say about you?”
Lakewood had threatened daily fines of $1,000 for each of the site’s 100 tents and 80 wood burning stoves.
They cited health and sanitary issues at the site, as well as complaints from residents whose homes are near the encampment. Lakewood’s mayor called conditions there “disgusting” and “horrendous.”
The residents of Tent City are in their seventh winter in the encampment, which encompasses township-owned land about 11 miles northwest of Seaside Heights.
Christopher Long, who said he wound up at the camp with his wife after losing his job with a food service company, said the weather has been difficult to endure outdoors.
“It’s not too much fun living outdoors,” he said. “If I hadn’t lost my job, I wouldn’t be living in a tent. I worked most of my life. I paid my taxes. It’s just cold out here. It’s a lot of work splitting wood for the fire.”
The township and Ocean County have been trying to close the camp for years. Superior Court Judge Joseph Foster ruled in Jan. 2012 that “there is a governmental responsibility here to care for the poor at some level.”
There is no homeless shelter in Ocean County.
“As a result of the motels and other housing that was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy or filled by Sandy’s thousands of refugees, there has never been a harder time for Ocean County’s homeless,” Wild wrote to the judge in a Jan. 29 letter. “There are more homeless than ever, both in Tent City and elsewhere. This also remains a terribly difficult winter, which is far from over.”
Gregory “Pops” Maple, one of the camp’s elected representatives to a self-governing committee, said the daily uncertainty over how long they will be permitted to stay at the camp is draining.
“Every single day, it just gets tiring,” he said. “We’ll eventually have to leave; I know that. [The government] can’t take care of everybody.”