Lakewood Township to Meet with Mediator in Homeless Eviction Lawsuit
In June 2010, the Township of Lakewood filed a complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Ocean County, to regain possession of land parcels in the township that are being illegally occupied as homeless encampments and tent cities without the consent of the Township. Lakewood is represented by Michael DiCicco, a partner with Bathgate, Wegener & Wolf, Township attorneys.
A coalition, formed to promote the cause of the homeless, has made claims against Lakewood, the Ocean County Board of Social Services and Ocean County that the Government needed to do more to address the plight of the homeless. Last month, the parties agreed to mediate the dispute with Edward J. McKenna, an attorney at McKenna, DuPont, Higgins & Stone and former mayor of Red Bank, in an effort to resolve what is being viewed as an untenable situation for Lakewood Township and upwards of 70 or more people occupying two of the sites located at Cedar Bridge Avenue and Clover Street, and Route 88 and the railroad tracks.
The Township maintains that the camps are extremely dangerous to the individuals living there and to the environment. For example, at the end of January another man died in a fire, adding to others who have already lost their lives in fires at the encampments. Little in the encampments is regulated to protect the people living there or the environment.
According to Gene Canfield, the director of inspections for the Lakewood Building Department, “The overall sanitary conditions in the camp continue to deteriorate…” with growing piles of garbage and debris. Uncut firewood litters the camp along with the debris from demolished structures.
The Cedar Bridge site is environmentally sensitive because it is located near the Metedeconk River and contains areas of freshwater wetlands. The “tent city” encampment threatens the integrity of the property with uninspected structures, tents, propane grills and stoves, an untested water source and well, a drum containing oil, debris, goats, chickens, garbage and used toilet paper strewn throughout the site, among other unsanitary conditions.
There is nothing sanitary or safe in the encampments, which continues to expand westward and northward, according to Canfield. An enormous amount of publicity is continuing to draw people to the camps from other states as well as from throughout New Jersey. A New York Post article (February 7, 2012) reported that the camp is growing by about one person a day, based on a statement from Rev. Steve Brigham.
In an effort to be compassionate and sensitive to the plight of others, Lakewood officials have tried to help, but there are limitations to what a municipality can do. They have not ever ignored the situation and have done whatever they could.
Township officials hired the nonprofit organization STEPS (Solutions to End Poverty Soon) to help place homeless individuals in facilities. STEPS had, in fact, placed about 35 people in a little over a year. But more people moved in causing STEPS’ efforts to be futile.
The Ocean County Board of Human Services has also been very active in trying to resolve this problem. They have assembled a Task Force of local and county organizations and agencies, both public and private, to find alternate housing, to fund that housing, and to provide other social services to the homeless. They went directly to the sites to offer the inhabitants assistance in finding alternative housing, such as apartments, hotels, and other sheltered living quarters. They have offered counseling, food stamps, drug counseling, among other help.
In spite of these efforts, some of the homeless residents of the properties have shown no interest in leaving the sites, or working with STEPS and the Ocean County Board of Human Services. They have declined to take advantage of alternative housing arrangements or other social services made available to them
Residents in the area are suffering from the effects of the dense smoked-filled air in the area. Michael Cohen, a resident recently wrote to Township officials.
My wife and I live within a mile of two homeless camps in Lakewood. The homeless people use open fires as part of their cooking, heating, and garbage disposal. I know this because I have visited the camps. We breathe the smoke from these camps on a daily basis, depending on the wind direction. The smoke makes our air unhealthy and on days when we could have a fresh breeze blowing through our house, we close our windows and turn on the air conditioning because of the smoke. Please do something to put these fires out.
The fire marshal corroborated the smell and the smoke as early as this October.
Because of the situation, Lakewood is strained to protect the health, safety, and welfare of its residents. At the camps there are unapproved building structures; unsanitary facilities and a well built for water that has not been tested. This is not only bad for Lakewood and for all the residents; it is bad for the inhabitants.
Unfortunately, Township officials have had to resort to legal means. The Township is trying to be proactive but they have not been getting the help they need. The homeless encampments are unsafe and it is crucial that a workable plan to eliminate the camps be devised with the cooperation the all parties involved.
It is for these reasons, Lakewood is looking forward to meeting with the mediator.