Minister’s community of squatters defies odds
Judy Peet, Religion News Service
June 29, 2009

Minister’s community of squatters defies odds

Minister’s community of squatters defies odds
Judy Peet, Religion News Service
June 29, 2009

LAKEWOOD, N.J. — The vegetable garden is ready to plant, the washer and dryer will be hooked up soon, and Nina the Polish lady figured out how to make cheese from the milk of the new goat, named Molly.

But while residents of what has come to be known as “KP Tent City” search for 20 more chickens “so we have enough eggs to be self-sustaining,” local officials explore ways to “gently” roust what Mayor Robert Singer calls “a nightmare waiting to happen.”

Throughout the country, tent cities have risen in response to troubled economic times and, just as quickly, have been shut down for health and zoning violations. Even the tent camp in Sacramento, Calif., made a national symbol of the recession by Oprah, pulled up stakes in April.

Here in Lakewood, however, the tent city is now in its second year and becoming more entrenched every day.

The squatters — most chronically homeless — sank a well, rigged up a propane-heated shower and built a food shed.

There is a bathroom tent with a chemical toilet on a wooden platform. There are movies they can watch on a donated television powered by a donated generator.

About 25 tents, a half-dozen teepees and a pop-up camper sit on a few acres of pine forest on the edge of town.

“People are worrying about $400,000 homes and $80,000 cars and they’re just a couple of paychecks away from us,” said “Bootleg Jimmy” Dorsey, 65, whose nickname relates to his drinking habits. “I feel sorry for them. At least we’re used to being poor.”

RNS photo by Aristide Economopolous/The Star-Ledger

Minister Steven Brigham assists fellow camp resident Nina in milking their goat Molly at a tent city in Lakewood, N.J.

Like Bootleg Jimmy, many of the 20 to 30 residents at KP had been on the road most of their adult lives.

“Our goal is to be self-sufficient, responsible and a community,” said Steven Brigham, 48, a nondenominational minister who is the driving force behind KP Tent City. “We are also a reminder. We wouldn’t be here if there were better alternatives for the homeless.”

“Minister Steve,” as everyone calls him, sees himself as a “catalyst for change.” The mayor, meanwhile, calls him an enabler.

“People feel good when they donate stuff to the tent city, but sitting out in our woods is not going to make the lives of these people any better,” said Singer, who has been in Lakewood government for 28 years.

“There is housing, but they need to obey rules, and they don’t want to obey rules.”

Bad things have happened — fights, homeless bashing, exploding stoves — at other encampments in and around Lakewood in recent years. Local workers estimate 15 homeless people have died in Lakewood in the past eight years. None were at KP.

The squatters clean up after themselves. It’s one of Minister Steve’s rules. Some tent interiors are neat, others almost pathologically messy. Health authorities worry about disease and the lack of refrigeration.

A former heavy-equipment operator, Brigham was ordained a decade ago and works with the Lakewood Outreach Ministry Church. Brigham drew on his boyhood camping in Michigan, and last fall, moved into one of the teepees.

The tent city operates on donated food, clothes, tents, furniture, equipment and about $20,000 a year in donated cash, he said.

Brigham holds Sunday services on the grounds but does not require attendance.

No one questions Brigham’s sincerity, only his refusal to work within the system. He has only a few rules: People must get along, do their share, respect the camp.

What he does not do — and takes heavy criticism for — is insist on sobriety.

“One of the reasons these people were living out of junk cars to begin with is that they don’t want to be clean and sober,” Brigham said. “Our rules are: No drugs in camp, and don’t drink to the point of being a nuisance. Beyond that, I’m not telling them what to do.”

Many of the squatters receive public assistance: Social Security, disability or welfare. They are expected to contribute toward food — canned goods supplemented by meat — and help with the daily chores “the best they can,” Brigham said.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Peet writes for The Star Ledger in Newark, N.J.)