By Victor Thorn -
Five years ago ordained minister Steven Brigham established a tent city for the homeless that is located only three-quarters of a mile from downtown Lakewood, N.J. Brigham recently sat down with AMERICAN FREE PRESS to describe how this site, which was only supposed to provide a temporary home for Americans who are down on their luck, has now grown significantly over the years.
“Today, 70 people live on seven acres of land out in the woods,” said Brigham. “There is no electricity except for generators that are periodically operated. We also don’t have water except for what we carry in drums that is pumped from a well. So, our tent city has a frontier-town feel to it.”
Brigham knows firsthand the travails of living hand to mouth, as he resides in a converted school bus parked on the premises. Helping his fellow occupants became, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
“Before setting up this camp, one local man died from pneumonia after living on the streets, while another froze to death in his car,” Brigham told AFP.
After beginning their rural lifestyle outside of Lakewood, problems soon confronted them.
“We haven’t requested a penny of government money,” Brigham explained. “But that hasn’t stopped legislators from trying to kick us out. Last year, we gathered together some wood and built 30 shanties that people could live in rather than tents. But the township council made us tear down every one of them.”
The results were devastating. Brigham continued: “Last winter we suffered through a 30-inch snowfall that dismantled every tent. Imagine being kicked out of a 12-foot-by-12-foot shanty smaller than most people’s backyard shed. Then the snow came and destroyed our tents.”
To keep warm during the winter months, residents place tarps over their tents and huddle inside heavy-duty sleeping bags. Needless to say, none of them is looking forward to the arctic months of December, January and February.
When asked what they do for food, the minister replied: “Every night, a Vietnam vet that lives in town visits all the area pizza parlors to gather up what they haven’t sold. He then drives them out here, where we have a communal-type kitchen. Everything is shared. We also get donations from churches, or when people have parties and they have leftovers.”
With many news reports now verifying that American poverty is higher than at any time since the Great Depression, the demographics of those who’ve found themselves in this predicament cut across all socioeconomic lines.
“We have one resident who used to make over $100,000 per year in the textile market. But then the entire industry got outsourced and he lost everything,” Brigham remarked sadly.
Despite the uncertainty and lack of resources, Brigham’s spirits remain high.
“We have our fair share of hardships, like no running water or electricity,” he said, “but nobody complains.”
Instead, his companions decorate their tents with knickknacks, rugs and family photos, while some have even built makeshift white picket fences around their lots.
“The decorations give our people a sense of pride and ownership, as if they belong to a community,” he said. “One of the guys even dragged an old piano out here, so now we can play music and sing at night. Without this sense of dignity and self-worth, the people here may lose any chance they had of regaining a purpose in their lives.”