"A crusading minister has built a forested Utopia for the itinerant and destitute. But is a social experiment what theyâ€™re looking for, or just a place to live?
The shower is a thing of beauty. Stainless-steel well point buried twenty feet below a cast-iron hand pump connected by gutter pipe to a 55-gallon drum draining through a garden hose into a propane-fueled heater hooked to an electric pump hooked to a car battery hooked to a gas generator. Flick a switch, turn a valve, and voilÃ : a hot shower in the woods.
Roughly three hundred feet down a rutted dirt road, in a dappled expanse of scrub pine and oak on the outskirts of Lakewood, New Jersey, about 40 men and women have made for themselves a provisional home. Dozens of tents sprawl across several acres. In addition to the shower, there is an outhouse tent with a flushable toilet pilfered from an old RV. Thereâ€™s a kitchen trailer with a working range. Thereâ€™s a community tent with turquoise leatherette sofas, and a washer and dryer that, when connected to the generator and filled with collected rainwater, operate as a de facto laundromat. Thereâ€™s a chicken coop and a vegetable garden. There was even once a goat named Molly, passed off to a local farm because no one could stomach the taste of her milk.
The camp looks something like the scene of an extended hunting trip, but it is in fact a homeless encampmentâ€”possibly the largest in the tri-state area, not that any governmental body has bothered to keep track. Some call it Cedar Bridge, after the nearest paved road.
At night, its residents gather around campfires telling Tales of My Homelessness. Some begin with a release from jail, others with a failed business, a failed marriage, a failed drug test, or a failed ability to deal with the daily grind of a nine-to-five. Michaelâ€™s story began in New York City, where his work as a union electrician dwindled with the Dow.
â€œI was working with my landlord. I would send him 500 bucks, 300 bucks. Then finally I got a summons to appear in court.â€
â€œDonâ€™t you just love that?â€ asks Mary Beth, who is playing hostess tonight outside her low polyester tent.
â€œThree days later, Iâ€™m walking up to the apartment, I see the doorknob is different. Thereâ€™s a sticker on the door: NO TRESPASSING. TENANT HAS BEEN EVICTED. Well, I managed to salvage what I wanted.â€
Mary Beth nods in understanding. â€œI had the same thing happen, but I made sure I kept the windows unlocked, and I crawled through at night.â€ This was after she had been fired from Wal-Mart in what she believes to be a systematic effort to rid the company of full-time employees. â€œWal-Mart sucks.â€ Her first night at the camp, listening to all the unknown noises of the forest, she was petrified. The next day she met Big Gerry, who had lost his house and his wife after his fitness center failed. She moved into his tent that night..."