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Judge Rules In Favor Of Lakewood Tent City

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Lakewood Tent City

Lakewood Tent City (credit: CBS 2)

TOMS RIVER, NJ (AP / CBSNewYork) - Steve used to build houses near the Jersey shore. Now, he has no home of his own, living in a tent in the woods with other homeless people in Lakewood.

WCBS 880’s Levon Putney On The Story

They’ll be able to stay there a bit longer after a state judge on Friday refused the city’s request to shut down the camp and remove its 25 to 75 occupants.

Acknowledging the decade-long dispute can’t go on forever, the judge wants both sides to work out a solution soon.

But for now, Steve, who wouldn’t give his last name, said he’s glad he won’t have to pack up and move.

“It’s a place to lay your head,” said the 55-year-old former home builder who used to live in Point Pleasant before he lost his job and became homeless.

Soon afterward, he was spending most of his time at the Asbury Park train station, whose benches he says he slept on for 11 years before finding the Lakewood homeless camp in the woods not far from the stadium where the minor league Lakewood Blue Claws play each summer.

“You have neighbors there in the same situation as you: no place to go. There’s just no other place to go right now.”

Homeless people have been living in the woods on city-owned land for about 10 years, pitching tents or erecting crude shelters. Three years ago, Lakewood filed a lawsuit seeking to shut down the camps, but the case has dragged on since then. Friday’s hearing was on the city’s request for a court order shutting down the camp.

But Superior Court Judge Joseph Foster refused, saying several important legal issues still remain to be decided. He asked both sides to come to an as-yet unscheduled hearing with proposals to end the standoff once and for all, even as he acknowledged both sides are growing more frustrated.

“When you take someone else’s property, you can’t expect the property owner isn’t going to say at some point, ‘enough,”’ the judge said.

“Enough,” agreed Michael DeCicco, an attorney for Lakewood. “Exactly. At some point, we have to control our property.”

But Jeffrey Wild, an attorney representing the homeless at the camp, turned that argument back against the city.

“On behalf of the homeless, we say ‘enough,”’ he told the judge. “None of my clients wants to live in the woods in the middle of winter. Lakewood and Ocean County have been ignoring the laws that say no person shall be unreasonably denied shelter.”

“All we want is a place for these people to go. All we want is what’s taken as a given in New York City, that there’s always a place of shelter,” Wild told WCBS 880 reporter Levon Putney. “From the beginning, we’ve been anxious to talk about stopping the waste of money on motel rooms.”

The judge agreed that the government has an obligation to care for the poor on some level. But he said he didn’t know if he has the authority to compel specific remedies, such as forcing Lakewood or Ocean County to spend certain amounts of money to provide for the homeless.

“I’m hoping that instead of litigating we can sit down and all agree that no one should be sleeping outside in a flimsy tent in the middle of winter,” Wild told 0101 WINS.

Jack Sahradnik, an attorney representing Ocean County, said after the hearing that the county, through its Board of Social Services, spent $20 million last year on programs to either serve the homeless or prevent people from becoming homeless, through rental assistance, help with utility bills and food aid.

“On any given day, there are 2,200 people being given homeless services or rental assistance by the county,” he said. “I don’t believe there’s any question the county is meeting its legal obligations.”

Advocates for the homeless say the closest homeless shelter is in Atlantic County, which offers only short-term assistance and has a waiting list.

“The current law says that if you make $7 a day you’re too rich for emergency assistance and that just does not make sense” Wild said. “Nobody can pay rent, find an apartment for $7 a day so we’re working to change that and we’re working to get affordable housing for everybody.”

The city contends the camp is a hazard, noting that one resident has died and another was seriously injured in propane stove accidents in recent years.

(TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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