Written by Katie Melone
More than a decade ago, Steve Brigham was like many ordinary Americans — he lived in a house in the suburbs and worked as an electrical contractor to support himself.
Today, he lives in a donated school bus in the middle of the woods in Lakewood, N.J., ministering full-time to a community of nearly 70 people living in tents, and tending to the needs of those struggling in the greater community.
“Somebody needs to stand up and defend the rights of the homeless and the poor in this area,” Brigham says, explaining his remarkable life transformation.
Known as “Minister Steve,” Brigham quit his job and founded “Tent City” about five years ago because so many struggling residents in the area had no housing options. In the past couple of years, Tent City has been increasingly populated with what Brigham calls the “new homeless” — individuals who, but for the bad economy, would be working and able to live independently.
“The basic issue here is that there’s no affordable housing in this area,” Brigham said. “The cost of housing is outrageous. It’s $21 an hour for a single individual in this area to afford a one-bedroom apartment, a used automobile and the basic necessities of life.”
“And the government, the social services won’t help somebody if they make over $7 an hour,” he added. Individuals in that exact situation fall through the cracks, Brigham says, and end up in Tent City.
“At my peak I was making about $700, $900 a week, I was laid off because the work was pretty much not there,” said Angelo Villanueva, 46, who worked steadily as a mason for 18 years until the recession hit in 2008. “And unemployment is just a fraction of what I used to make. I couldn’t make ends meet. I couldn’t pay the bills all the way.”
So after Villanueva lost job, insurance and apartment, he moved to Tent City, about 8 months ago. He recently found a job making $8 an hour, but he’s unable to leave the small compound he’s painstakingly built. “Still doesn’t allow me to find affordable housing,” he says.
While nearly all Tent City residents are struggling to find good-paying work, many say they are buffeted by the sense of community and the safety net provided them there. “I just feel so badly for the people hanging on by their finger nails because that’s what we were doing, hanging on by our finger nails, scared to death of the next day and what was going to happen,” said Marilyn Berenzeig, who moved to the encampment from New York City with her husband 18 months ago after losing her job in the garment industry. “And If I’d realized that this would be the alternative, I’d have been so relieved.”
But the community may be under threat. The town of Lakewood, which owns the wooded property where the Tent City encampment sits, is seeking to evict the homeless residents through the civil court system, claiming they are trespassers. Tent City residents, in turn, have filed a counter-suit, claiming the town is denying their right to shelter. A hearing is scheduled for January 6th.
“Homeless defendants and Steve Brigham have no right to interfere with Lakewood’s possession, use and occupancy of property owned by Lakewood,” states a legal motion the town filed. “The defendants have set up homeless camps on this property without the consent of Lakewood.”
But Tent City residents, whose pro bono attorney, Jeffrey J. Wild, has spent a half a million dollars on their defense, say they have no other option. The county Board of Social Services turned down 3,774 applications in a 32-month period for assistance, Wild has told local newspapers. Wild has also argued that the county has failed in its duty to care for the homeless in “an efficient or humane manner.”
“I want, again, Ocean County to build a homeless shelter but I don’t believe the shelter has to look like the typical rescue mission of your average city,” Brigham said. “Something that’s efficient you know would be fine with almost anybody here in Tent City. And so again, simplicity is something that’s fine with most of the people here. We were talking about community is something that’s essential for almost everybody, to feel good about themselves, it’s an emotional need for everybody. And so that sense of belonging, that sense of community, that sense of ownership, that sense of purpose, these are all emotional needs that need to, that can be manifested in a shelter.”
Written by Katie Melone