The jobless in New Jersey find refuge in Tent City
By Allan Chernoff
Cars and trucks cruise along Cedar Bridge Avenue, drivers listening to radio anchors reporting the headline that a record 46 million Americans are living in poverty, while 50 feet from the bustling boulevard, hidden by the woods that border the road, lies a shocking example of that shameful statistic.
Behind the trees, six dozen homeless Americans have set up camp, in tents, teepees and huts, residents of what they call Tent City. It’s a place where those out of work and out of luck can drop out of society while living as cheaply as possible.
“It’s a community here,” said the Rev. Steven Brigham, who founded Tent City in 2006 as part of his Lakewood Outreach Ministry Church. “They have a sense of belonging.”
In the past year Brigham has seen Tent City’s population nearly double as the jobs recession drags on.
Angelo Villanueva jabs at a homemade punching bag he hung from a tree — a plastic bag filled with dirt wrapped with tape. It’s a “stress reliever,” said Villanueva. He’s a skilled mason who worked construction jobs for nearly two decades, then fell victim to a sucker punch from the housing collapse. Villanueva, also an artist who has been drawing sketches of Tent City, never dreamed that he’d be among the nation’s homeless.
“You think of a homeless person, you think of a wino. But it can happen to anyone at any time,” said Villanueva. “I had the wrong conception of a homeless person — I figure he’s a bum, a deadbeat.”
Joe Giammona, an unemployed handyman, drinks from a can of Pepsi as he watches a neighbor cook sausage and eggs on a communal grill. Giammona moved here five months ago after a shooting near the rooming house where he previously lived in Asbury Park, New Jersey. He says he’s constantly searching for a job but hasn’t been able to catch a break.
“It just seems like every door is shut in my face. You know there’s nothing hiring. I always hear that things are slow right now. ‘Come back in the fall, come back in the spring,’ and then when I come back to these places it’s always an excuse after an excuse. You can’t get hired anywhere,” said Giammona. “I would take anything right now, anything that’s willing to hire.”
Brigham receives donations from individuals, churches and synagogues that he says allow him to operate Tent City for about $1,000-a-month.
Loaves of bread are piled on a communal table, next to plastic garbage bags filled with clothing. Cans of food sit neatly in a wooden pantry. Residents are free to take what they need.