TOMS RIVER, N.J. (AP) — An encampment of homeless people in the woods near the Jersey shore will gradually be phased out as its 80 or so occupants are given at least a year of housing under an agreement reached Friday.
The deal would eliminate the need for Lakewood's so-called Tent City and end a seven-year dispute about local governments' responsibility to care for the poor.
Residents of the encampment and Lakewood officials reached an agreement in principal under which none would be evicted without first being provided adequate indoor housing for at least one year, according to Jeffrey Wild, an attorney representing the homeless.
"No one can be forced out of where they are now unless they are offered safe and adequate housing indoors," he said. "That's all we ever wanted. We're not here to defend Tent Cities; no one should have to live in the woods. This is about the right of everyone to have housing."
The deal, reached after nearly two hours of talks in the chambers of Superior Court Judge Joseph Foster, still must be ratified by the Tent City residents, as well as by Lakewood officials.
Lakewood and Ocean County officials have been trying to close the camp for several years. It sits on township-owned land near a minor league baseball stadium.
Earlier this year, Lakewood threatened daily fines of $1,000 for each of the site's 100 tents and 80 wood burning stoves. They cited health and sanitary issues at the site, as well as complaints from nearby residents. Lakewood's mayor called conditions there "disgusting" and "horrendous."
Advocates for the residents say there is no shelter anywhere in the region for homeless adults and the governments have not done enough to provide safe housing for them.
Many details of the agreement remain to be hammered out, including whether the local and county governments will construct a shelter for the homeless, convert an existing building into one, or provide housing in scattered sites through rental assistance programs. Also to be determined: who decides what housing is appropriate, the residents of Tent City or local officials?
Earlier this week, 16 of the camp's residents submitted personal histories to the judge, outlining how they became homeless and how badly they want to get out of the camp and into real homes. But the agreement was announced in court before any of them could speak on Friday.
One of them was Bert Haut, who has been living at the camp on and off for three years.
"They need a shelter in Ocean County," he said. "Minus running water and electricity, this is no way to live."
Kevin Pridemore, another of the camp's residents, previously worked as a tree surgeon and hopes to find a job in his field as soon as next week.
"I'm probably the only tree surgeon who's not getting rich off this storm," he said, referring to Superstorm Sandy which knocked down thousands of trees in October that are still being cleaned up around the state.
"I'm really happy I'm not being evicted," he said. "I have nowhere to go with a roof and heat."
Friday's agreement does not involve Ocean County officials, who are being sued by the residents alleging the government has an obligation to provide shelter. The judge will hear a motion by the county to dismiss the case against it in May. If a trial is needed, it will start Aug. 19, the judge said.
Jean Cipriani, a lawyer for the county welfare board, said the goal is to make Tent City unnecessary.
"Everyone's end game is to close it and for everyone to find shelter," she said.
Rev. Steven Brigham, the leader of the camp, said he's optimistic the residents will find shelter.
"The county and Lakewood have supposed to have been working toward a shelter," he said. "That's my bottom line. If the township and the county get together and provide that shelter, everyone should be happy."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC