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 voilà: 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. There’s a kitchen trailer with a working range. There’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. There’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 encampment—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. Michael’s story began in New York City, where his work as a union electrician dwindled with the Dow.
“I was working with my landlord. I would send him 500 bucks, 300 bucks. Then finally I got a summons to appear in court.”
“Don’t you just love that?” asks Mary Beth, who is playing hostess tonight outside her low polyester tent.
“Three days later, I’m walking up to the apartment, I see the doorknob is different. There’s a sticker on the door: NO TRESPASSING. TENANT HAS BEEN EVICTED. Well, I managed to salvage what I wanted.”
Mary Beth nods in understanding. “I had the same thing happen, but I made sure I kept the windows unlocked, and I crawled through at night.” 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. “Wal-Mart sucks.” 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.
Tonight is frigid, the first unexpected cold snap of fall. Down the pathway, other fires flicker like a string of Chinese lanterns. Flashlights pass in the distance. A church group has arrived bearing large tins of pasta and salad. Tracy, who has recently assumed the role of one of the camp’s leaders, pauses in front of Big Gerry’s fire to spread the word. “There are people with food down there—kids and a lady. If anybody wants to go see what they have, now would be the time.” She perks up, remembering a bit of gossip about a new arrival to camp. “You seen the new kid yet? Wait until you see his face. He is cute as hell. He’s about 19. Tall, thin, lanky. But he has no brains!”
“Guess what he asked Mary Beth,” Big Gerry interjects. “ ‘What time do they come down here to pick up the laundry?’ ”
The absurdity of the question gets a rousing laugh out of everyone.
“I said, ‘Excuse me?’ ” Mary Beth feigns mock indignation.
“Well,” says Big Gerry, looking at her across the flame. “We’ll be out of here soon.”
They say it was once a dumping ground, but besides a few oddities found here and there—a rusted gun, a license plate from 1932—there’s no evidence of that now. The expanse is verdant and shadowed, with trees towering over a swath of land cleared of undergrowth in a long-ago forest fire. An idyllic place to set up camp.
Or so thought the Reverend Steve Brigham when he stumbled across it three years ago. He had a job with a high-voltage electrical contractor for the Port Authority—changing lightbulbs on the Bayonne Bridge—and made decent money. But since 1999, when God called upon him to help the homeless, he’s been providing the down-and-out he meets in Lakewood with provisional comfort: a tent, a sleeping bag, a propane heater.