LAKEWOOD, N.J. – A homeless encampment near the Jersey shore that came to be known as Tent City and shined an uncomfortable spotlight on homelessness in the suburbs was declared closed after the last of its 120 occupants was placed in temporary housing.
Lakewood town officials and a lawyer who represented the camp's occupants announced its closing on Monday, although the last occupant left last Thursday.
Tent City's former residents have been provided apartments for at least 10 months and motels for another two as part of a court-sanctioned agreement worked out between them and town officials.
The Rev. Steve Brigham, an advocate who lived at the camp, said the first residents began camping out in the woods of what would become Tent City in 2003.
"Without a doubt, we brought awareness to the fact that there's homelessness in the suburbs, and a great need for a shelter, and for affordable housing — smaller houses on smaller pieces of land that people can afford on a low-wage job," Brigham said. "There still is no shelter in Ocean County; this is a Band-Aid. It's better than getting kicked to the curb with nothing, but it's still a Band-Aid."
Former Tent City resident Tonya Henderson, one of the last to leave, is now in temporary housing and looking for a steady job.
"With a little bad luck, anyone could end up homeless," she said. "I am so grateful to be out of the woods and in housing."
The camp began in 2003 but came to the attention of Lakewood officials in 2006. Its residents devised their own bylaws and held elections to choose their own leaders. Among the rules: no drugs, no loud noise and no entering someone else's tent without permission.
At least five people died at the camp from fires, illness and exposure over the years.
As the camp grew in size, it increasingly grated on the nerves of neighboring residents. It sat across the street from an apartment complex and less than a mile from a popular minor league baseball stadium where a low-level Philadelphia Phillies affiliate plays.
Lakewood and Ocean County officials made various attempts to crack down and evict the camp, and the dispute wound up in court, where a sympathetic judge prodded both sides to reach an accommodation.
Under a pact reached in March 2013, camp leaders agreed to close it down once all its residents could be provided with at least a year of housing. Since then, the camp has shrunk as residents slowly moved out.
There are several smaller encampments of homeless people in various sites in Ocean County, and advocates are working to find housing for them as well.
Lakewood's deputy mayor, Albert Akerman, was relieved to have the camp gone.
"Today is what we in Lakewood have wanted all along: the official closure date for Tent City with the closing done the right way, by helping these people get housed in a fair and compassionate way," he said.
Attorney Jeffrey Wild, who represented the camp occupants for free for several years, said all parties to the dispute will work toward establishing a permanent homeless shelter in the county.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC