LAKEWOOD, N.J. — The candidates made the rounds of their neighborhood, canvassing voters who live in canvas.
There were almost no doors to knock on, so the campaigning often consisted of a shouted greeting: “Steve, come on out here for a minute!”
The issues were debated: How to maintain law and order, who should get the next available heater, what to do with the noisiest voters, whether anyone could deliver some lights to the community, which lives in pitch-blackness each night in the woods.
And then the residents of Tent City, the controversial encampment of homeless people near the Jersey shore that has been the subject of a years-long court battle to evict its residents, voted. They filled out their little paper ballots, folded them in half and stuffed them into a ballot box.
On the first Sunday in October, the camp’s 80 or so residents elected three representatives and approved by-laws spelling out what can and can’t be done there, along with enforcement provisions for violators. They also approved committees approximating the functions of executive and judicial branches of more traditional government.
“I believe we can lift people up,” said Gregory “Pops” Maple, one of the elected representatives called co-managers. “I feel like I have the ability to improve the operations of this place. But I was kind of surprised I got elected. Some people have the gift of gab; not me.”
Actually, Maple’s best qualification for office may be that he’s a good listener. The soft-spoken 62-year-old native of Brooklyn, N.Y., wound up in the camp about a year ago due to “financial difficulties.” One of Tent City’s elders, he is quick with a smile and thinks long and hard before saying anything. When he does, he can usually find the right words to de-escalate a situation without anyone’s feelings getting hurt or having their pride wounded.
Tent City just marked its sixth anniversary in September. This is the seventh winter the camp will have experienced, but the first with any rules and regulations.
It made it through Superstorm Sandy with minimal damage: Three tents were destroyed and quickly replaced. Half the residents fled during the storm, while the other half rode it out. All but one couple has since returned.
“We probably fared better than most other people did,” said Rev. Steven Brigham of the Lakewood Outreach Ministry Church, who founded the camp and lives there with its homeless residents. “We’re used to living in the cold and dark without electricity.”
The rules are simple and sensible. First and foremost: Respect each other’s rights, and keep the peace. Drugs and illegal weapons are prohibited. No going into someone else’s tent without their permission. If you wish to share the food and supplies that are donated to the camp, you have to help cook or clean up. Same goes for showers and laundry.
There’s a quiet period from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. where loud radios, cellphones or the use of generators are banned. Trash has to go in one of the bins provided in the center of the camp. A “support committee” made up of community, business and religious leaders will act as the final word on disputes that can’t be resolved within the camp. And of course, the by-laws explicitly recognize that the laws of Lakewood, N.J., and the United States of America also apply to Tent City.
Brigham said that in addition to improving the lives of the Tent City residents, the election also was designed to show the judge hearing the legal case involving the camp that things are not spiraling out of control.
“The by-laws show that this is not just a bunch of radicals living in the woods,” he said. “We are a community that wants to live in peace, with law and order.”
Already, the co-managers have had to deal with some issues. Sister Hannah, another of the three elected representatives, said “the noise factor” has arisen a few times.
“A couple keeps making a lot of noise,” said Hannah, who would not give her last name, saying publication of it might put her at risk from a situation from her past. “We have to decide what we’re going to do about that.”
Maple suggests moving them to a far edge of the camp, away from most of the others. Expulsion from Tent City, while provided for under the by-laws, is to be used only as a last resort. These are, after all, folks who have virtually nothing, and already have no place to go.
Not everyone is jumping for joy over the new rules and the elected representatives to whom they now may be called to answer. Vera Tims, who has been in the camp since it opened six years ago, said the new system hasn’t made much of a difference yet.
“When we have a problem, they’re supposed to deal with it, but they don’t,” she said. “It’s just a name.”
Tims said Tent City’s biggest need is lighting.
“It’s dark as hell back here at night,” she said. “We could use some street lights.”
“There are 22 women here,” added her boyfriend, Steve Hamburger. “It’s for their safety.”
With winter fast approaching, many residents want portable heaters to use inside their tents. A group of residents call out to Brigham as he walks past, complaining that they still haven’t gotten a heater. He assures them he’s doing the best he can, which only makes them grumble more as he walks down the muddy pathway.
“It’s challenging,” Brigham said. “To make sure 80 people living in the woods with nothing that regular society uses to keep warm can get through the winter, well, it’s just challenging.”