CAMDEN, N.J. – Homeless people who built a community of blue campground tents just a few blocks from downtown got a reprieve Thursday, allowing them to remain, at least for now, at the self-governing settlement.
Both the residents and social service agencies were nervous about Thursday's deadline from a Camden County official to shut down the community. They feared adequate housing would not be found by the deadline, forcing the 30 or so remaining homeless people to move out of a relatively safe environment and into the streets.
Gino Lewis, the official who wanted to close the enclave, arrived there Thursday morning to tell community founder Lorenzo "Jamaica" Banks that Tent City would not be closed yet — and that efforts would continue to find housing.
Lewis says that the residents have formed a real community over the years. But he said the settlement, wedged in the woods between a highway off-ramp and train tracks, is unsafe and unsanitary.
"They've done a great job," Lewis said. "The problem is, right now we need to take the next step for them and help them."
But he won't force them out now.
Banks, a Vietnam War veteran who says it's been 37 years and 11 months since he had a home, said he found the woods a few blocks from downtown Camden about four years ago.
He and some other homeless people cleaned it up, wrote rules and invited others to live there.
Residents of the encampment consider Banks the mayor of "Tent City." Some hold positions there that include cook, security director, spokesmen and even community outreach coordinator.
Residents have begun growing their vegetables. Other food is donated by some of the volunteers who stop by.
There are weekly meetings and church services. Tent City leaders say they try to get sick residents to doctors.
During summer months, the population can grow as high as 100.
The push to close the camp began after Banks went to officials last year seeking help for his constituents. A task force was formed. The county pledged to use some of its roughly $1 million in federal economic stimulus money for homeless aid to get the tent dwellers into homes.
Banks called for the deadline, but said he wanted to use it as motivation for residents to get out — not to shut down Tent City. But he fretted that the county might enforce it.
As the deadline approached this spring, the population began to grow rather than shrink. By last week, about 60 people were living there.
Some, like Banks, who professes that he "doesn't do inside," said they would not move by the Thursday deadline.
Many did, though.
After the reprieve, Lewis won't name a new deadline to close Tent City.
But Banks said his goal is July 1.
Banks said he would stay to clean up the settlement, which he has been calling Transitional Park.
He's also been thinking about how nice it would feel to take a hot bath or to brighten a room when night falls. Perhaps he'll try living under a roof again, he said.
"I think it's about time," he said.