Life

“That’s Pretty Extreme”

A day in the town that came up with a jaw-dropping solution to banish homeless people.

A police officer on bicycle converses with a man standing in the shade of a brick wall.
A police officer confronting a homeless man in Lakewood. Aymann Ismail

LAKEWOOD, New Jersey—It was otherwise perfect on a recent afternoon in Lakewood.
The forecast was clear and in the 80s, with a cool breeze that made for a nice day to be outside. Kids rode their bikes in the wide-open streets. Families lined up inside bakeries and delis. But when I visited the town square, it felt deserted. There was one family—a mom watching her two kids ride scooters in circles—in an otherwise empty promenade.

That wasn’t always the case. The town square was once a bustling place. At that time of day, there would often be between two and three dozen people having their lunches, playing games, or just hanging out on concrete barriers and on grassy patches beneath the trees. But the trees, the draping and lifeblood of the space, had vanished.

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Steven Brigham, a minister and local advocate who’s lived in Lakewood for most of his life, told me this was the city’s radical strategy for making the area more “family friendly”: chopping down every tree that dotted the scenic square, citing as the reason the dozen or so homeless people who hung out there.

Tree stump in town square.
Trees that once canopied the town square vanished overnight. Aymann Ismail
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Lakewood Mayor Ray Coles told the Asbury Park Press, which led reporting on the decision, that the move was necessary. He cited complaints received by the police department’s Quality of Life unit about homeless people. “They were harassing people, defecating between the cars and residents were complaining,” he said, according to the paper.

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Brigham said there was no warning or debate. One morning, when he came to deliver donated produce from a local farm to local homeless people (something he often does), the trees had already been cut down and thrown into a dumpster. “It didn’t take me long to figure out that they did it just because of the homeless,” he told me. “I said to myself, ‘That’s pretty extreme.’ ”

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We sat at a concrete bench with a built-in chessboard. Brigham craned his neck, trying to help me imagine what it had looked like before the trees were cut. “I’m just gonna count on this side: one, two, three, four, five, six.” He turned to the other side and continued. “One, two, three, four, five, six. That’s 12. Then there’s on the outside. They cut maybe around 30 trees.” We’d only been sitting a few minutes, but I could see Brigham turn slightly red, and sweat began to bead down the side of his face. “I mean, it was beautiful. These trees were big. They were probably about 15 feet tall. The shade would cover this table. We’d be sitting in the shade here,” he said.

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Man talking to bicycle police officer.
Steven Brigham debates with a police officer in Lakewood. Aymann Ismail

There were two high school boys with bikes sitting in the municipal parking lot with their backs to the town square. I asked Onesimo, a 15-year-old, if he knew what happened here. “They cut the trees down, I guess, which is sad because it really helped the beauty of the place,” he said. People came to “chillax in the shade. Kids would come here and play, but the sun is really strong now. You’re basically asking to get sunburn, so no one comes here anymore.”

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Brigham first became an advocate for the local homeless population 21 years ago. It started during a trip to a boarding home in the area to visit a friend, when another man pleaded with him for help. “He came up to me and said, ‘I can’t afford the rent at the boarding home. Can you help me?’ ” Brigham offered him a tent, some camping gear, a mobile stove, food, and a promise to check up on him every week or so. “That’s probably the best I can do; I just don’t have money, otherwise,” Brigham recalled telling him. The man enthusiastically accepted the help, and followed Brigham into the woods on the outskirts of town, where they encountered an entire community of about two dozen people surviving in the wild. Brigham helped them out, too. “I supplied them with more camping gear and whatever I could get. Then they told me that they knew of other homeless people. I said, have them meet me here at this time. And we met, and they knew of other homeless people. And so, it became a mission,” he said.

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Brigham told me that about 10 people routinely slept in the square and relied on the large trees to protect them against the morning dew. Of the feces in the parking lot and the public urination, he told me it has to do with infrastructure, not character. “Well, there’s no place for them to go. They don’t have their own home to go to the bathroom at. There’s only one place, the library, and that’s only open until 5 o’clock. And after that, if they’ve gotta go, there’s just no place,” he said. He said it was “extremely irrational” to decimate the trees rather than set up a couple of outhouses.

The morning after the trees were cut, people looking for a place to go went over to a parking lot across the street that also had big trees. The township promptly sent cutters there to remove those trees, too. Now, there is a small camp in an alley behind the church, but Brigham says he’s heard that the township is intent on putting fences on either side to make it inaccessible.

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Outside the church, about five homeless people sat in the shade, looking out at the now barren town square. Samuel Strong, a gentle older man wearing a black baseball cap and black T-shirt, told me he had been present when the town cut the trees down. He’s been in Lakewood since 1964 and described it as a “nice place without too many problems.” He says he and others still come to the town square at night, but the police circle around, warning them about open containers of alcohol and sleeping there.

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Brigham said most homeless people in Lakewood are like Strong, displaced by a booming population and left behind, often with substance abuse or mental health problems. “A lot of people have been displaced. Their family moved somewhere, and they stayed behind because they grew up here and they feel comfortable here. But they’re hanging on by their fingernails,” he said. “There’s no place for them to go. They’re frustrated.”

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I asked Strong how he felt about what happened to the trees. He shrugged. “There’s nothing I could do about it. You can’t complain about something you can’t do nothing about. We can’t do nothing about this. That’s God’s work that they cut down. They’re supposed to be people of God, but they did the work of the devil, cutting down resources to get rid of people,” he said.

Strong was referring to the leadership in the town, which is largely Orthodox Jewish, a connection another man also made to me that day in more menacing terms, asking if I was “Israeli” before he would speak to me. Some two-thirds of the population is Orthodox Jewish, and Lakewood is now home to over 130 yeshivas, including the country’s largest.

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I also sensed that Brigham resents the county’s leadership for abandoning their responsibility to the local homeless population. He tried to avoid blaming the growing Orthodox community as a whole, but he also said that because they are now the majority here, he’d like to see more accountability. “This is their community. Rabbi Meyer Korbman took over the Section 8 program”—referring to federal housing vouchers—”and people came down from Brooklyn. They tapped into government programs, and a lot of the Orthodox Jewish population is on Section 8. So, government money in Lakewood is going to the religious community, and then they persecute the poor that aren’t using resources. It just doesn’t seem fair.” (In 2017, more than 150 people, mostly Orthodox Jews, were arrested and charged with fraud in Ocean County for taking advantage of the county’s welfare and Medicaid programs.)

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I reached out to Lakewood’s township committee, and to the mayor’s office, but I didn’t hear back.

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At a local Orthodox deli, I asked patrons about the problems in the town square, but no one would speak to me. The deli manager, whose business is situated right on the edge of the square, told me he didn’t know anything about the trees. Others also demurred or laughed off my questions. Then again, the community has its reasons to avoid outsiders like me: As recently as April of this year, it was terrorized by a man who struck two Jewish pedestrians with his car and stabbed another after promising a “blood bath.”

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Later that day, as Brigham and I talked with two homeless people who said they had been in the area since 1992, a Lakewood officer on a bike entered the camp and confiscated open containers of beer. Another person in the camp protested: “We have no place to go, and these guys keep bothering us. If you keep harassing the Latino community, someone from D.C. will come,” he shouted. The officer responded, “I told you guys. When is the only time I come over here? When I see the open alcohol, correct? We can’t have that in town. And it’s not just the Spanish community we go after,” he said.

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He threw the containers in a nearby trash can that was already overflowing with beer cans. “When I come over here and you guys are urinating in these trees over here, which we wrote a report on last week when we issued a summons to the guy, when you’re defecating in the parking lot over there, that’s not acceptable,” he said.

Trash overflowing a yellow trash bin.
Aymann Ismail
Two men
Aymann Ismail

Brigham objected, saying they have no other choice. “The township tore down the only shelter that they had here,” he said, pointing to an empty lot across the street. The officer snapped back: “You know why? Because there was prostitution going on. There were drugs going on. And it just smelled.”

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“So what town is going to put the shelter up?” Brigham asked. “Winter is coming quick. I keep telling these guys they have to prepare something. Most of these guys are from Lakewood. They’re raised in Lakewood.” The officer seemed exasperated: “There should be a shelter, but who’s going to build it?”

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Before he rode off, the officer made a point of telling me that the local press got it wrong, and that despite the mayor’s reported statements, the trees weren’t cut down to deter homeless people. “They’re redoing everything over there. They wanted to redo the town square,” he asserted, then added: “I saw kids playing soccer over there the other day. A town square is supposed to be used like that, not used as a homeless encampment. It’s hard to feel bad for people sometimes when all they do is drink all day.”

In the meantime, the township is asking people in need of housing to apply for one of 1,000 housing vouchers for a program to temporarily house homeless people. But the application process requires identification and other documents that homeless people often don’t have access to. Advocates say the vouchers do nothing to assist people with health concerns and substance abuse issues. Brigham told me most homeless people don’t think of the vouchers alone as a serious solution.

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In the meantime, Brigham is collecting donations to equip homeless people in Lakewood with survival supplies. He just installed an air conditioner in the tent of a 50-year-old woman who suffered an aneurysm and is now paralyzed on the right side of her face. “She’s pretty cool in her tent right now,” he said. Brigham is also collecting propane heaters to keep tents warm when the weather turns cold.

“Ocean County is shirking their responsibility. I’m from an old American family,” Brigham said. “I grew up believing that America was supposed to be fair. And then I come across this stuff. It just bursts my heart.”

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