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A Homeless City in the Woods

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Just after dark, a van pulls up to the access road, and a small woman and a tiny boy get out. Steve leads them down to the Mexican part of camp, hoping that someone can translate his message that they have a place at Cedar Bridge if they want it. The mother seems mostly concerned about whether Immigration ever visits the camp. The boy wants to know if he can still go to the same school. He looks around at the tents nervously. Everyone stares at him. Now that he is here, it is obvious even to Steve how out of place a child would be at Cedar Bridge.

Steve says he will make some calls to find someone else who needs a live-in. For tonight, they are invited to stay with the woman who found them and first contacted Steve, and who now stands wringing her hands and apologizing that she can’t take them in for good. “My grandkids live with me,” she says, “and they just don’t understand poverty. All they understand is video games.” On the walk back to the van, the woman and child are silent. Steve’s flashlight catches the looming outlines of the tepees. As the boy passes, campers peer from their tents, thankful to see him go.

By Thanksgiving, mutiny is mounting. The child’s visit has spooked everyone, not least because it demonstrated just how impossible it is for Steve to say no. Plus, Steve has begun inserting himself into the day-to-day operations of the camp, and his growing involvement is viewed as a form of babysitting. He recently moved into a tepee, as if to show everyone else how it’s done. But no one wants to be forced to move, and Steve’s appeal to sustainability means little to those who see their stay at Cedar Bridge as temporary, and who bristle at the prospect of a winter spent chopping wood. His tours of the camp are bringing in donations, but everyone’s a little weary of being part of the dog-and-pony show, and many believe Steve would be able to afford propane if he didn’t share the money donated to Cedar Bridge with other homeless encampments. When the camp receives a large shipment of Thanksgiving turkeys and Steve delivers some of them elsewhere, protests are made. When he takes away the generator the following week as punishment for the trash left lying about, indignation rises. Without a generator, the residents complain, there’s no hot water. No one can shower for three days.

In the weeks after Thanksgiving, Tracy and Mike, realizing that Steve is not about to renege on the propane issue or any others, hatch a plan to take control of Cedar Bridge by aligning themselves with the township. Along with a couple recruits from camp, they arrange a covert meeting with Lakewood’s Fair Housing officer, who agrees that Mike should assume Steve’s role as the Cedar Bridge representative in town. Mike says he thinks he’s found someone willing to supply the camp with propane, and together the group starts hashing out ways to circumvent Steve’s authority. As evening approaches, Mike and Tracy return to camp, heady with the scent of revolution. Tracy pops open a beer can as if it were a bottle of bubbly, ticking off the things that have been discussed. “We’re getting our own website for donations, they’re gonna set up a bank account that’s administered by a panel, we’re talking about taking the tepees down, they’re going to make sure that we have enough propane so everybody has heat, we’re going to restructure some of the places so they’re winterized, maybe get the tarps we need to keep the snow off—Steve’s not doing any of that.”

“He doesn’t want to do it,” Mary Beth interjects.

“No,” Tracy agrees. “He refuses. He just keeps bringing new people. He’ll bring anybody down here and they can stay here forever, but he won’t help them get a job. He doesn’t want people to leave.”

“We can’t have people in the woods for the rest of their lives,” says Mike.

Tracy nods. “Now we’re ultimately accountable, not Steve. If somebody brings new people into this camp, we need to know about it. As a collective community, we will decide to let people in and out.”

“It’s gotta come through me,” says Mike.

“We make the decisions,” Big Gerry agrees. “You know what? We’ll sit down with a pad and whatever and write our shit down, our notes.”

“I gotta start giving out different jobs to different people,” says Mike.

“Oh, you know I’m right there—where are the cigarettes?”

Mike remains pensive. “Let me tell you something. It’s a lot to take on, if you’re not sure that you can handle it. I mean, me? I know I can. All y’all got to do is help me.”

“Right,” Tracy says. “And we need to make it work.”

Mary Beth raises her can. “We’re trying to make it—”

“A functional community!” Big Gerry exclaims.

“A family community!”

“Like … a rural subdivision.”

“We should get a ledger sheet from Staples.”

“Well, we can do that.”

“Yeah! Let’s get a ledger sheet.”

“First of all, we have to get a system going, and once we get the system going, then we stick with it.”

“That’s that.”

“We’re gonna be responsible for ourselves.”

“Can I have a cigarette?”

“No.”

“You have to lead by example.”

“We’re going to take what we want. We’re going to make the system work for us for a change.”

“We gotta do something.”

“Right.”

“This is a stepping-stone.”

“This is a long time coming.”

“Can I have a cigarette?”

Two weeks before Christmas, the conflict at Cedar Bridge comes to a head. Mike’s plan to receive a private donation of propane has moved forward, and his benefactor, a local contractor named Bob, arrives one afternoon to pick up the tanks for refueling. This takes Steve by surprise. He had heard the grumbling around camp, of course, but he hadn’t realized he was dealing with a full-blown coup. The propane will thwart, or at the very least delay, his plan to move the residents into tepees. Don’t they understand that he’s looking out for the camp’s long-term interest?

When Mike and Bob return from the gas station carrying full twenty-pound tanks, Steve confronts them. The tanks are his property, he says. Who will take responsibility if one explodes? But Mike is firm in his belief that Steve is denying Cedar Bridge the fuel it needs to survive the winter. When Bob chains the tanks together and gives Mike the key, Steve calls the police. The standoff comes to an uneasy resolution. “I just put my cable and lock on top of his chain and lock, and now it takes two keys to open the propane tanks,” says Steve.

Three days into this shaky détente, a blizzard hits the East Coast, dropping close to two feet of snow on Cedar Bridge—the worst storm anyone can remember spending outdoors. Half the camp evacuates, going to sleep in church basements or motel rooms, waiting out the worst of it. Those who remain round up brooms to sweep the roofs of their tents throughout the night. Most eventually give up, falling asleep in the community tent, where one side begins to buckle under the accumulation despite efforts to bolster it with wooden poles. By morning, most of the tents have collapsed, their sunken shapes hardly discernable from snowdrifts.

Tracy hides out in her tent, wearing long johns and reading a paperback romance under the covers of her cot. She’s resentful of the fact that she worked to save tents longer than their owners did and, in the end, struggled to save her own. “I didn’t have to be here,” she fumes. “I could have been in a fucking motel.” Her voice turns plaintive. “But there are a lot of people here, and what were they going to come back to?”

Steve rode out the blizzard much better in his tepee. “I lit the fire, got it warm, and then I crawled in and I was fine,” he says. In fact, all of his tepees have withstood the storm. In the community tent, there’s talk of moving into them once the snow melts—many tent poles have snapped, leaving some residents with no choice. But despite this partial vindication, Steve remains distracted and deflated.

As night falls, he drives to a Spanish-speaking church to search for several of the Mexicans who had abandoned camp during the storm. In the car, he mulls over Mike’s attempted coup. “He’s looking for the easy way. Most of the homeless are. I was just hoping they would be more sympathetic to my standings. Sometimes I wish they’d be a little more grateful.” He stares at the rutted white arc of road illuminated before him. “They don’t see it, you know,” he finally says quietly. “They don’t see it.”

When he arrives at the church, the Mexicans are no longer there. No one knows where they’ve gone, or if they’ll return to Cedar Bridge. For tonight at least, they’re choosing another brand of homelessness.


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