Communities across the U.S. are struggling with an increasing homeless population. Recently the homeless in one New Jersey township found themselves with less places to take refuge. Of course, they aren’t the first American community to have shade trees cut to deter the homeless. Additionally, birds and other animals that had been living in those trees have been affected too.
Lakewood cut down Town Square trees to deter homeless
Juan Carlos Castillo (Asbury Park Press)
LAKEWOOD – The township cut down all of the shade trees that once lined Town Square in a controversial move designed to prevent homeless people from spending time there.
Mayor Ray Coles said the decision was made after a recommendation from the Police Department Quality of Life Unit, which the township said was triggered by numerous complaints from residents and township employees about homeless people defecating and urinating in the area.
“They (homeless people) were harassing people, defecating between the cars and residents were complaining,” Coles said.
Claudia Romero, who works in a tax preparation company across from the Town Square, said that one day she found human feces on the sidewalk in front of her office and then submitted a complaint to the township. The township did not say how many complaints it received.
Homeless advocates aren’t happy
The move, advocates say, was unnecessary and does nothing to help those in need.
“Well, if they create a shelter, they create some accommodations for homeless people, (then) they didn’t have to worry about that. It’s extremely extreme to cut down the trees. That’s not the answer,” said Steven Brigham, a minister and head of Lakewood Outreach Ministry, who has been working on behalf of homeless people for over 20 years.
Brigham, who also founded Destiny’s Bridge, a charity that provides shelter, sustenance and medical care to people in need, said that the Town Square trees were cut down on Aug. 8 and, two days later, the trees at the Clifton Avenue parking lot, between Third and Fourth streets also were gone.“Public parks property is public property. It belongs to the public. And they (homeless people) should have the right to stay on public property,” Brigham said.
Brigham said cutting down the trees was an effort by the township to rid the area of homeless people, many of whom have complained to him about police not letting them sleep on public properties.
Mayor says apply for housing vouchers
Coles said homeless people here have another option.
“I encourage them to apply for one of the 1,000 Section 8 vouchers that are now available,” Coles said.
Last month, New Jersey approved 4,000 housing vouchers with 1,000 of them dedicated to the homeless.
Advocates say it’s not that simple
But the application process is not easy.
“It is not a very straightforward thing, not an easy lift,” said Richard Uniacke, president of Bridges Outreach, a New Jersey nonprofit that helps homeless people.
Uniacke said that homeless people often do not have the identification and other documents needed for the state’s programs. In addition, they are often coping with behavioral health care needs and substance abuse.
Those obstacles, he said, mean the process of finding housing can take anywhere from three months to over a year.
Access to technology is also barrier
In Lakewood, Solutions to End Poverty Soon, a nonprofit also known as STEPS, set up a computer room to help people apply for various state and federal assistance, and they have been guiding homeless people to navigate the system and obtain help.
“The problem is that the homeless don’t have the technology. Most homeless people do not have an email address, and you have to have an email address. So we are setting up email addresses for them and assisting them through the process,” said STEPS director Michael McNeil.
Meanwhile, Coles said that the township expects to revitalize Town Square to make it more inviting for families.