Police v. the homeless in Lakewood

Crossposted from The Tent City Project:

The Rev. Steve Brigham was in good spirits today when I arrived at Tent City in Lakewood.

The founder of the camp, known to residents as Minister Steve, was being interviewed by News 12 New Jersey as I approached, a day after an attempted eviction of a Tent City resident landed him in jail.

He explained his side of the story to News 12 and, as we (News 12, the Tent City Project team and some of the residents) walked into the camp from Cedar Bridge Avenue, two unmarked police cars came barrelling through the entrance and sped down the path into the main encampment -- refusing to slow down despite there being Tent City residents in their way.

One resident shouted angrily after them and the rest of us rushed to the camp's center to see what was happening. Police then set up a perimeter, blocking off a large area and searched one of the tents, removing what looked like a bag of baseball bats. Police on the scene wouldn't comment.

Brigham had been charged with witness intimidation and vandalism after he sliced up a tent near the entrance to the compound. That much is agreed upon. The rest remains murky.

According to The Asbury Park Press, police say they arrested Brigham on Monday "after he cut up the tent of a another camper because she talked to police earlier in the day about potential illegal activity there."

Steven "Rev. Steve" Brigham, 52, was arrested around 5 p.m. Monday after police returned to the encampment because a 50-year-old female resident called them to report Brigham was cutting up her tent and forcing her out of the wooded area known as "Tent City," located off Cedar Bridge Avenue and South Clover Street, according to Detective Capt. Paul Daly. The woman alleged the eviction was retribution because she was seen talking to police investigators earlier in the day, Daly said.

"Brigham and others confronted her because she was talking to investigators earlier in the day. He told her to leave, and when she returned a little later Brigham was cutting up her tent," Daly said.

The early Press article lacked Brigham's response -- an error rectified after the reporter visited the camp and talked with Minister Steve. During the interview (I'll post a transcript of Steve's comments later), "Brigham admitted he evicted the woman and cut up her tent. ... but denied that her talking to police was the reason."

He said the woman was involved in illegal activities and was disruptive in the camp. "It's the only way to get rid of it (the tent)," Brigham said about cutting up the tent. He spoke on about the incident after he was released Tuesday from Ocean County Jail on bond. "These charges are bogus. These charges are false. These charges are made up. She is just saying whatever she can to stay in Tent City and do whatever she wants," Brigham said.

Police told the Press that the woman accused Brigham of evicting her, because Brigham "doesn't want anyone cooperating with the police." That charge, he said, was "Totally erroneous."

She called (police) on another drug addict (in Tent City) yesterday and we took down his tent too," Brigham said. "I told her we do not call the police because we can handle matters within the camp. Every time the police come down here to Tent City, it is going on our record, and when we go to court they are going to list all these things against us. We've got to minimize the police interference when it's not critical."

What the Press piece ignores, howerver, is the larger issue raised by Brigham -- that of the camp's relationship with the Township of Lakewood. The town sued to close the camp, but a judge ruled that the residents had a right to survive and, given the lack of shelter space in Ocean County, it had to stay open. Brigham and several camp residents have filed a class action suit against Lakewood and the county accusing them of violating the state constitution's guarantee that citizens have a right to survive -- a "right to safety and to life" -- attorney Jeffrey Wild, who is representing the homeless in the suit, told me today.

The police involvement is part of a larger pattern of harrassment, Brigham says, that has included towing residents' vehicles and the disabled bus Brigham used for his home, the dumping of wood chips at the end of an emergency exit path and other inconveniences. The harrassment, he says, is retribution for his challenge to the township's housing policies, which have resulted in money being funneled to the large Orthodox Jewish community in the township. He calls it "segregated housing" -- though it is unclear whether the alleged imbalance in housing distribution has happened because of political decisions or because of the demographic composition of the community (between 40 percent and 50 percent are Orthodox Jews).

In any case, it is clear that both Lakewood and Ocean County -- among other New Jersey municipalities and county governments -- have failed the state's growing homeless population. The Tent City Project is an artistic look at human rights issues facing residents of a homeless camp in Lakewood, NJ and its connection to the growing number of tent cities across the country. See our Facebook page for more information -- and don't forget to "Like" us.

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