New Jersey Tent City Houses 70 Homeless People Who Draw Community Scorn

PHOTO: Tent City is a homeless community in Lakewood, New Jersey that houses more than 70 people in tents, shacks, trailers and tepees.

Marilyn Berenzweig was a successful New York textile designer who loved her work and comfortable lifestyle. For the past year, however, she and her husband have been living in a tent city in the New Jersey woods.

"The weather, the bugs, the dirt; I think it's the dirt that really gets to me," she said. "It's not like you can pop in the shower at the end of the day.

"It's life on a much more primitive level. ... Cooking on a wood stove ... having no running water, no electricity."

Berenzweig, 60, and husband Michael live at Tent City Lakewood, a growing community of 70 homeless people living in a series of tents, shacks, trailers and tepees in a wooded area along the Jersey Shore about 25 miles north of Atlantic City.

When they first lost their home, they tried living with their daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren.

"It didn't work out ... too many clashes of temperament," she said.

Their son-in-law drove them to the camp 16 months ago. Other than telling their daughter, they've kept their whereabouts off Ocean County Parkway a secret from family members.

Berenzweig said she'd first heard about tent cities from her friends.

"A friend of ours had mentioned tent camps earlier, thinking it was disgraceful what this country came to with economics being so bad at the time," she said.

She never imagined she'd soon be living in one.

Berenzweig and her husband's makeshift home is a wood-framed shack covered with a tarp and blankets. They've created a patio of sorts with blue tarp hanging over a series of plastic chairs and tables. Underneath the tarp are signs of everyday life: a propane fueled stove, dishes, a dictionary, cooking utensils, a coffee mug.

Their patch of land has a chicken coop on it and a wood stove to be used during the harsh winters to stay warm. A shopping cart is full of wood and paper to be burned in the stove.

They brought their cat and birds to live with them, remnants of the life they once had. They've adjusted to being labeled homeless, but some parts of having nothing are more difficult to handle.

"It's kind of hard to take things. It's hard to be an object of charity," she said. "That takes some getting used to."

Berenzweig's circumstances aren't unique. The rocky economic recovery and stagnant unemployment rate have led to a surge in the homeless seeking shelter in shanties and tents nationwide, experts say.

The modern-day Hoovervilles have names such as Dignity Village or Pinellas Hope or simply Tent City 1. There's no official estimate on how many tent cities exist but, experts say, nearly every state has one and the presence of such communities is soaring.

"In just about every major city, there are tent cities," said Michael Stoop, a community organizer for the National Coalition for the Homeless. "Unfortunately, we're in a growth industry and the numbers are going to continue."

Stoop and his organization began formally tracking tent cities in 2010 but the numbers have grown so much that trying to keep a detailed report of every tent city has overwhelmed them.

"Imagine if you had never been homeless before and you'd just lost your job and you lost your home," he said. "What would you do? Would you immediately go begging or knocking on a door?

"No, you would downsize, move into cheaper accommodations, if that did not work you'd move in with friends or relatives and then you'd move into a cheap motel and then ... where would you want to go before winding up at a shelter door? You would much prefer to live at a park with your family and your dog," he said.

The communities range from just a few people living together in tents or wooden shelters to full-fledged organized communities such as the one in Lakewood. Just a few homeless people began gathering in the woods there in 2005, but as the financial meltdown worsened, their numbers grew.

Steve Brigham, a pastor, has been working with the community since it began forming. Two years ago, he quit his job as an electrical contractor and now lives with the homeless in the camp. He lives in a bus donated to him from a local school.

"I wonder to myself how long I can continue with the population growing, resources dwindling. ... I'm very concerned about this winter, extremely concerned about ... whether I'm going to have everything I need to keep these people satisfied and comfortable and the basic needs met," Brigham said.

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