Residents of Camden, NJ’s Tent City, with its 16 rules to live by, may be ousted this week

By Geoff Mulvihill, AP
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Residents of Camden, NJ, Tent City may be ousted

CAMDEN, N.J. — Marvin Tomlinson has lived in Tent City on and off since the homeless enclave was founded about four years ago in a patch of woods between railroad tracks and a highway off-ramp.

Fighting crack and alcohol addictions, he has found life a struggle since leaving prison in 2002 after serving 16 years for manslaughter.

But he has also found a purpose as he saws logs and throws them into a fire pit which camp cooks will use to make supper from donated potatoes and canned beans.

Tomlinson, 43, looks over the tents in the community he helped build. “This right here,” he said, “is an accomplishment.”

But it might go away.

The county wants to shut down the self-governing society by Thursday. Officials say its residents need to find new places to live — a cold turkey approach to reducing homelessness.

The eviction notice is startling for the people who make their home in Tent City, a place officials have tolerated, even as it grew from a few people to at least 100 last summer. It’s on the brink of closure partly because the founder asked officials to help its residents.

Social service agencies say they’re not sure there are enough spaces if everyone who is kicked out seeks shelter space. And while some residents say they would be grateful to have roofs over their heads, others just want to be left alone.

Glenn Neil works, when he can get it, unloading chocolate from ships at a Camden port. He doesn’t like the curfews at shelters, and sleeping on the streets is unsafe, he said.

Tent City — or Transitional Park, as its leaders have been calling it lately — is better for someone who can’t afford an apartment, Neil said. He’s been there about five months and isn’t sure what he’ll do if it closes.

“The government’s plan is starting to bite me in the butt,” he said.

Tent City has become a municipality unto itself, complete with a mayor. Sixteen simple rules are written on boards that hang on a tree. No. 1, “No arguing”; No. 3, “No borrowing money or sex from anyone”; No. 7, “Don’t bring your drama here or you’ll be evicted.” Residents say the rules generally are followed. Evictions and arrests are rare.

Most residents bought their tents, like those used at campgrounds, with money from jobs, disability checks or other sources. Some people have portable toilets lined with trash bags; others relieve themselves among the trees. Residents also go to agencies that provide services for the homeless for bathrooms, sinks and showers.

Sometimes volunteers from churches or schools help clean up. And sometimes, trash bags line the perimeter of the community.

Many of the residents have mental illnesses or drug addictions. Some don’t want to give their names for fear their relatives will learn what’s become of their lives.

Tent City began when Lorenzo Banks, known as Jamaica, came upon the space as he walked along the adjacent railroad tracks. Banks said he’s a Vietnam War veteran who “doesn’t do inside.”

The publicly owned site was littered with thousands of hypodermic needles and pieces of clothing. Once Banks got it clean and organized, occupancy grew. In-house security officers — residents who volunteer — roam the area with walkie-talkies, mostly trying to keep out intruders.

Residents prepare three meals a day to share among themselves. There’s a mandatory meeting every Tuesday evening for Bible study and to talk about issues in the settlement.

“It’s a lot of good here in Transitional Park. It’s not about being homeless and helpless,” Banks said. “It’s about trying to overcome your fears of society.”

Volunteers and social workers regularly check in to offer everything from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to drug treatment programs.

As Tent City’s mayor, Banks went to the Camden County Community Development Program last year, hoping to get his constituents help with finding housing and getting services.

That’s when the idea came to shut down the camp, said program director Gino Lewis.

“This particular community cannot survive the way it is,” he said. “There’s lack of sanitation, there’s health issues. So we want to make sure we try to transition them to facilities that will help them.”

Banks said the deadline was intended to nudge people to get help — not to force everyone out. He and at least a handful of others say they intend to remain in Tent City long enough to clean it up — setting up a possible standoff.

Lewis said he did not know whether people remaining in the camp on Thursday would be removed.

There are two other tent cities in Camden — and the county is searching for a way to shut them down, too. Lewis frets that some Transitional Park residents will just move to the others.

Poverty and homelessness are persistent in the area, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. In a one-day count last year, officials and volunteers found about 580 homeless people in the county — most in the city of Camden.

Lewis said that the social service system should have enough space for the people in Tent City. Some could go to subsidized apartments; others might go to various types of treatment centers.

But Harold Miller, an outreach worker with the nonprofit service group Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, isn’t sure there’s space for Tent City dwellers.

“I think if the proper housing is in place, they all would go,” he said.

Fifty-three-year-old Tent City resident Genevieve Amaro doesn’t expect to find housing quickly. “I’ll sleep in the streets,” she declared.

Miller thinks she won’t be the only one.

“Knock them out of homelessness into more homelessness,” he lamented. “How do you do that?”

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