The community in tent city

    It may be the economy, or just the arrival of warm weather, but the population of Camden’s Tent City is blooming. The self-appointed mayor of the homeless encampment is trying to persuade some new arrivals to find a home elsewhere.

    It may be the economy, or just the arrival of warm weather, but the population of Camden’s Tent City is blooming. The self-appointed mayor of the homeless encampment is trying to persuade some new arrivals to find a home elsewhere.

    Fifty-two-year old Wayne Moyer lives in a blue and gray tent that looks brand new. In front sits a new, red fold-up camping chair. Inside a shiny bright blue sleeping bag is laid flat on the ground next to pillows and blankets.

    Moyer’s like a lot of the fifty or so people who live in tents here in a tree-filled triangle of land that’s bordered by Interstate 676 and Martin Luther King Boulevard just blocks from City Hall. Outsiders call it tent city, but residents prefer the name “Transitional Park.”

    Life here can be rough: It gets cold, a few inches of snow can flatten the tents, and firewood can be in short supply. Even so, the summer population can soar to 125.
    Tents in Transitional Park, also called "Tent City."
    Moyer is one of the new residents: He came to live here about a week ago after sleeping in a homemade lean-to in the woods by himself.

    Like a lot of the residents he’s a veteran,

    “They give me a hard time because I was in the Air Force and a lot of them were Marines.”

    Moyer says he has struggled with physical problems, depression, and fits of anger that have lost him jobs and apartments.

    Moyer says he has trouble getting along with a lot of people but he likes his new neighbors.

    “I may not leave if they tell me to,” Moyer said. “If I don’t feel like going, I’m not gonna go. I don’t care what they do. They think only the druggies and prostitutes and all that…it ain’t. Most of these people are hard-workin. If they had a chance to work they’d be workin’.”

    The reporters asks, “If the outreach workers said to you we’ve got an apartment and a job for you, come on, what would you say? “

    “I wouldn’t believe it because I’ve been told many a things by many a people that have never happened,” Moyer responded.

    Gino Lewis is the Director of Community Development for Camden County. Lewis and outreach workers are trying to help the residents get treatment for mental health and substance abuse issues as well as find jobs and housing.

    The group’s self-appointed Mayor has asked Lewis to find housing for dozens of the Park’s residents by April 15th.

    Lewis says some of the residents tell him they want help leaving, while others say they don’t want to move.

    “They feel they’re being evicted or put upon,” Lewis said. “We’re not trying to do that. What we’re trying to do is make them understand the conditions are not fair to them. That they should be living in better conditions.”

    Transitional Park’s self-proclaimed Mayor, Lorenzo “Jamaica” Banks, is a slight man with a quiet voice.

    Debris at the entrance of Tent City.
    Debris at the entrance of Tent City.

    “Why would you want to be here?,” he asked. ” You got a chance to get housing. Somebody else could have this spot…I can lead you to the well but I can’t make you drink the water. My job really is to build back up your self-esteem, self-confidence for a society that forgot all about you because in today’s society everybody is livin’ paycheck to paycheck to keep from bein’ homeless. You miss two mortages you can be homeless yourself.”

    Banks says he’s been living here for five years.

    It almost feels like a fully-functioning Bohemian community: Residents share food, clear snow off each others’ tents, and cut wood to keep the group fire burning.

    Thomas Lind brought firewood. Without volunteers like him, life would be harder for the Tent City residents.

    Lind works as a pediatrician in the Camden public schools, and a lot of residents approach him with medical questions. Today he’s brought multivitamins for the pregnant women and supplies for the diabetics.

    “It started off actually we called it peanut butter and jelly time,” he said. “I have three children, and we would make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, put ’em in bags, the kids would make little designs on the bags and we would come down, drop ’em off, just sort of chat with people, drop some water off. And that would be pretty much it. And as I started coming down I found out more and more and people needed candles, flashlights, firewood so we needed firewood”

    “I would hope somebody would do it for me if I were in this situation,” Lind said. “You know this is one those there but for the grace of God situations I think…I just feel like these people are the same as the rest of us and I want to make their life as comfortable as possible.”

    Lind says the tent city residents have formed more of a structured and supportive community than the scattered homeless groups he helped in Philadelphia. He says when outsiders stop by, a protective resident will often ask why they’re here.

    In the back corner of the camp, Air Force vet Wayne Moyer points to his neighbors’ tents. Like anybody who just moved in, Moyer says he doesn’t know all of his neighbors, but he’s working on it,

    “These people here I know ’em but I’m bad with names,” he said. “I remember faces; it’s the names I have a problem with. They’re nice people though….I told my friend to stay with me so she doesn’t have to sleep outside.”

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