Published August 11, 2011
Lakewood, N.J. – While millions of Americans hold their collective breath as Wall Street wreaks havoc with their life savings and retirements, residents of Tent City, a tiny makeshift community about 70 miles south of New York City, have more immediate concerns: finding their next hot meal.
For this collective of homeless and unemployed former landscapers, service industry workers and military veterans, the mention of "tarp" is sure to start a conversation about temporary rooftops, rather than a debate over President Obama's $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program.
At Tent City in Lakewood, N.J., very few are lucky enough to leave.
It seems like a scene straight from "The Grapes of Wrath," but this is no Great Depression novel. This story takes place in 2011, and this New Jersey tent city is one of an untold number of such encampments across the United States, where unemployment has reached 9.3 percent and approximately 3.5 million people are likely to be homeless in a given year, according to the most recent estimates by the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Joe Giammona, 31, has been homeless for nearly four months, after moving from Florida following a relationship that "just didn't work out," he said. He briefly stayed at a rooming house in Asbury Park, N.J., but the accompanying drugs and violence chased him away. A former landscaper and general contractor, Giammona lost his job when his boss had to slash payroll.
"Ever since then, it's been impossible to find a job," he said. "They're just not hiring at this time. I've been everywhere."
Clad in a "Cape Cod" T-shirt, black sweatpants and filthy white sneakers, Giammona said he has relatives throughout New Jersey but refuses to "accept help" from anyone.
"I try to make the best of it," he said, while turning a hot dog on an outdoor grill. "I hope for hope."
Despite the optimistic outlook, Giammona, who looks for employment daily at nearby industrial parks or for any odd job as a day laborer, said life outside is no picnic.
"You're either rich or you're poor," he said. "There's no in-between anymore."
The Rev. Steven Brigham of the Lakewood Outreach Community Service Ministry established this tent city five years ago for Ocean County, N.J.'s unemployed and disenfranchised residents, many of whom had previously lived paycheck to paycheck. Whether by loss of a job, the death of a loved one or a failed marriage, the American Dream has turned into a waking nightmare for the camp's inhabitants.
The 2-acre, public-owned campsite, which sits just off a state road, is composed of dozens of tents, teepees and wooden shanties that will easily buckle with winter's first heavy snowfall. Residents cook food donated by local churches on outdoor grills, and there's even a shower room. When nature calls, outhouses are found fully stocked, and portable generators provide just enough juice to charge cell phones or fire up the radio for that night's ball game.
The amenities might be sparse, but for those in the "homeless hole," they can be invaluable to the soul, according to Brigham.
"Once you fall into the homeless hole, as I call it, it's very difficult to claw your way back out," he said. "But it does happen."
Marilyn Berenzweig, 60, and her husband Michael have been living in Lakewood's tent city for 17 months. Previously of Queens, New York, Berenzweig worked as a textile designer, but lost her job due to the souring economy.
"That's an industry that has almost completely vanished in the last few years," she said. "All of my friends are out of work. It's all gone to China."
Berenzweig, an avid reader who doesn't watch television, studies survivalist skills, particularly how early American housewives maintained a fire, chopped wood and heated water for cooking and cleaning.
"Survival is very hard without the modern conveniences," she said. "We took about a month to prepare and I camped as a child, but [Michael] kept saying, 'What do you mean no electricity?' But really, we're busy most of the day."
Berenzweig -- whose wooden shack is flanked by caged birds, including a talking starling -- said most of the campers are comfortable with the surroundings.
"We manage to adapt and make the environment adapt to us, too," she said. "I could live here for the rest of my life, that wouldn't bother me."
Ocean County officials, however, are currently entrenched in a lawsuit to demolish the camp in a case that has reached New Jersey Superior Court. A status conference on the case is scheduled for Sept. 13, according to the campsite's attorney, Jeffrey Wild.
"As soon as our firm learned that homeless men and women had been sued for ejection and that they had no other place to go, we agreed to represent the homeless and seek to fight the underlying problem: the lack of any available emergency shelter in Ocean County," Wild wrote in an email to FoxNews.com. "My fathers and his sisters were raised by a single mom during the Great Depression. They often could not make rent, and often had to leave in the middle of the night the day before rent came due. Thus, I have always known that with a little bad luck -- a lost job, an illness -- any of us could be homeless."
Similar legal fights are occurring nationwide. In Providence, Rhode Island, tent cities have sprung up in a city park off Pleasant Valley Parkway, forcing city officials to seek a preliminary injunction to eject the homeless group. Campers without a permanent residence also took to public property in Colorado Springs, Colo., before its City Council passed a no-camping ordinance in February 2010. A homeless outreach program there continues to seek housing for small families at motels and shelters.
Elsewhere, like in Virginia Beach, Va., more than 20 residents of a tent city were told to vacate in April the small cabins they called home. Similar situations have also unfolded in Olympia, Wash., and Sacramento, Calif., where homeless advocates and authorities have long negotiated for a city-sanctioned encampment.
Meanwhile, back in Lakewood, when asked what he'd tell Obama if he had a chance to meet the president during his Midwest listening tour, Brigham said he hopes to hear how Obama plans to stop the steady outsourcing of American jobs .
"Outsourcing American jobs to other countries is causing the average American to be out of work and unable to support himself," he said. "If at all possible, [Obama] needs to take measures to stop that outsourcing so the average American can carry his own weight.
Brigham said he'd also like to see Obama -- the "captain of the ship" -- focus on building more affordable housing on small pieces of land.
"Homes that people can really afford," he said. "Build them small."
Moving away from the country's dependence on oil would also go a long way toward recovery, Brigham said.
"He's got to make some serious moves to get off the oil," Brigham said of Obama. "It's an addiction and it's going to destroy us unless we're able to adjust and get to a more sustainable form of energy."
Above all, Brigham said he'd like to see Obama "raise the spirits" of the average American.
"We don't want to see the boat go down and he's the captain of the ship, so he has to do something or say something to make us feel better about the situation of our nation," he said. "It's so bleak out there."