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Growing plight of US homeless

By The Associated Press in Lakewood, New Jersey | China Daily | Updated: 2013-03-16 07:51

'Tent city' of 80 residents, highlights just how quickly life can turn

One member of the homeless camp is a nurse with three college degrees who says she was hit by a car and disabled. Another says she was fired by her supermarket for absenteeism after taking care of her dying boyfriend. One other says he's a homeless Marine veteran of Iraq who wants nothing more than to find a job.

All are telling their stories in an attempt to avoid being kicked out of the flimsy tents in the New Jersey woods that they are unhappy to call home.

The local mayor calls conditions at the encampment of about 80 residents "disgusting" and "horrendous". Advocates for the tent residents say there is no shelter in the region for homeless adults and that local governments haven't done enough to provide safe housing. The tent city is in its seventh winter.

The dispute highlights the general anxiety across the United States about how to address the persistent problem of homelessness, including among military veterans, some home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Along with the Marine veteran, the camp is home to a Navy veteran who needs a hernia operation.

Lakewood's Tent City residents all say the same thing: They want nothing more than to find some stable, safe housing. On Friday, the stories of 16 residents, written in their own words, were scheduled to go before a judge who is being asked by the town to shut down the camp.

"I would love to get out of Tent City," wrote Beth Paterson, 56, who worked as a nurse at a naval base and a nursing home before being hit by a car and disabled. "I have a 16-year-old son who lived with me before the accident, but I cannot currently afford an apartment where we could live. I had to send him to live with my parents - age 82 and 93 - and I miss him terribly. Why would I want to try and survive the winter living in the woods if I could be indoors with my son?"

Superior Court Judge Joseph Foster is wrestling with the legal, moral and intensely personal issues the case has raised. Last year, he ruled the government has some responsibility to care for the poor, but the extent of that care, and how it is provided, remains to be determined.

Plastic tents

Residents live in plastic or fabric tents, some atop wooden platforms, many more on the muddy ground. Chickens wander about, and smoke from campfires and stoves curls into the air.

Barbecue grills in the center of the camp are used to cook meals, heavy on donated macaroni and cheese, beans and pasta. Church services are held in a tent or outdoors each night.

Earlier this year, Lakewood authorities 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, as well as complaints from nearby residents.

But the camp cannot be closed without the judge's permission because of the ongoing litigation.

The stories of the homeless residents are part of legal filings by Jeffrey Wild, a lawyer representing the Tent City occupants for free. The stories show how illness, an accident, the loss of a job or just bad luck can leave the most successful people without a home. They also seem designed to counter criticism that the residents are lazy and want to stay in the woods indefinitely.

"Everyone agrees that there should not have to be tent cities, and that Tent City should cease to exist as soon as all of its residents have access to safe and adequate indoor shelter, so they no longer need to live outside in the woods," Wild wrote to the judge.

The claims of the homeless residents could not be independently verified, but each one signed a legal document asserting their statements to the judge are true.

Lorraine Schultz, 62, said she lost her job at a supermarket when she took too much time off to care for her dying boyfriend, who had been with her for 22 years. She says she lost her apartment in Seaside Heights and stayed with friends briefly before ending up in Tent City with her dog, Peanut.

(China Daily 03/16/2013 page6)

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