Years ago, Steve had toyed with being homeless himself, living for long stretches of time in campers and tents and buses. Once he and his former wife drove out West to sleep on beaches and in canyons for five months. They tried to consume as little as possible, to live close to the rhythms of the land. There was a difference, of course, between the destitute homelessness he encountered through his church work and this kind of voluntary camping. But Steve related to the vagabond, meager lifestyle, and he started searching for some place better to send the Lakewood homeless community, a place where one might even choose to live. When Richie, a longtime itinerant who was living behind an industrial park, asked for help in finding a home, Steve bought a tent and started hiking through the woods. He found the clearing off Cedar Bridge Avenue, and moved Richie there in the spring of 2007.
The camp has been attracting residents ever since. A few newcomers would appear every month, and Steve responded by giving them each a plot of land. “There was no structure,” he says. “I was just eyeing out places that looked good in the area and setting people up.” By 2008 Steve realized that Cedar Bridge was becoming a permanent fixture—and a permanent home to certain residents—and that it was growing faster than any other homeless enclave in the area. He became more ambitious, reasoning that if he consolidated his efforts, he could make a sustainable, even thriving community out of Cedar Bridge. He began building a system of rudimentary services to provide the residents with rigged-up approximations of modern life. About a year ago, having quit his job to fully focus on his mission, he moved into the camp himself.
Lakewood is an easy hour’s commute from Manhattan and part of a county that, for most of the last decade, was the fastest-growing in New Jersey. The former resort town might seem to be the sort of place that would offer a soft landing, but it has been shaken hard by the recession; people there have little economic cushion, and the few social services available were not prepared for an onslaught of poverty. There are currently more than 1,000 homeless in Ocean County, but the one homeless shelter has only four beds. “They seem to think that if they don’t offer them anything, the homeless will just go away,” Steve says. Last March, there were twenty people living in Cedar Bridge; by the end of the year, the population had more than doubled.
Not that living in the woods is easy. Drinking water must still be carted in from town. Perishables quickly perish. Cell phones must be charged with a generator. A few of the residents have found employment—Darren has a job at a grocery store, and Little Jerry works at a car wash—but besides odd day jobs, most rely on Social Security, unemployment, or welfare. Getting work or a bank account or even food from a food pantry requires I.D., and those tend to disappear when you have no place for safekeeping.
Yet even a cursory survey of the tents suggests that the camp is more than just scraping by. One has a fully stocked bookshelf. Another houses a chifforobe. The neighborhood beautification award goes to Nina, the Polish lady, who has festooned her camper with exotic fans and stuffed bears, and surrounded it with planters and tiki torches. All things considered, Cedar Bridge is a rather improbable success, as much commune as way station. “I think this is the best structure that a homeless person could hope for,” Steve boasts. “It’s as good as it can get.”
The biggest issue facing the camp is heat. Last winter, Steve spent over $2,000 a month on propane, but with donations having dropped by more than half from an annual high of $50,000, he fears he can no longer afford the fuel. His solution: 16-foot-tall ventilated tepees constructed out of wooden two-by-threes, wrapped in a hide of industrial plastic, and heated by wood-burning stoves.
This idea of drawing fuel from the forest appeals to Steve, whose call to serve the homeless dovetails with a personal philosophy of social progress. “I believe we have to go back to natural renewable systems as a society,” he explains, “and I thought that implementing this with the homeless would be a nice place to start.” He refers to Cedar Bridge as a “laboratory experiment,” one in which he can test the back-to-basics, sustainable way of life he feels is not only advisable but increasingly necessary. Working with those who have dropped out of society, he envisions building a new one, harmonious and self-reliant, infused with Puritan restraint. “People have been geared to think that the path of least resistance is the ideal,” he says. “We’re trying to show them a system in a microcosm and showcase to people that it does work.” But trying to build a Utopia in a forest in New Jersey would be a daunting task for even the most committed idealists, which the residents of Cedar Bridge are decidedly not.