Monday, August 15, 2011

Homeless. Hopeless. Economic Woes Lead to Proliferation of Tent Cities Nationwide

While millions of Americans hold their collective breath as Wall Street wreaks havoc with their life savings and retirements, residents of Tent City, a tiny makeshift community about 70 miles south of New York City, have more immediate concerns: finding their next hot meal.

For this collective of homeless and unemployed former landscapers, service industry workers and military veterans, the mention of "tarp" is sure to start a conversation about temporary rooftops, rather than a debate over President Obama's $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program.

At Tent City in Lakewood, N.J., very few are lucky enough to leave.

It seems like a scene straight from "The Grapes of Wrath," but this is no Great Depression novel. This story takes place in 2011, and this New Jersey tent city is one of an untold number of such encampments across the United States, where unemployment has reached 9.3 percent and approximately 3.5 million people are likely to be homeless in a given year, according to the most recent estimates by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Joe Giammona, 31, has been homeless for nearly four months, after moving from Florida following a relationship that "just didn't work out," he said. He briefly stayed at a rooming house in Asbury Park, N.J., but the accompanying drugs and violence chased him away. A former landscaper and general contractor, Giammona lost his job when his boss had to slash payroll.

"Ever since then, it's been impossible to find a job," he said. "They're just not hiring at this time. I've been everywhere."

Clad in a "Cape Cod" T-shirt, black sweatpants and filthy white sneakers, Giammona said he has relatives throughout New Jersey but refuses to "accept help" from anyone.

"I try to make the best of it," he said, while turning a hot dog on an outdoor grill. "I hope for hope."

Despite the optimistic outlook, Giammona, who looks for employment daily at nearby industrial parks or for any odd job as a day laborer, said life outside is no picnic.

"You're either rich or you're poor," he said. "There's no in-between anymore."

The Rev. Steven Brigham of the Lakewood Outreach Community Service Ministry established this tent city five years ago for Ocean County, N.J.'s unemployed and disenfranchised residents, many of whom had previously lived paycheck to paycheck. Whether by loss of a job, the death of a loved one or a failed marriage, the American Dream has turned into a waking nightmare for the camp's inhabitants.

The 2-acre, public-owned campsite, which sits just off a state road, is composed of dozens of tents, teepees and wooden shanties that will easily buckle with winter's first heavy snowfall. Residents cook food donated by local churches on outdoor grills, and there's even a shower room. When nature calls, outhouses are found fully stocked, and portable generators provide just enough juice to charge cell phones or fire up the radio for that night's ball game.

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