The long-running saga of the Tent City homeless encampment in Lakewood, N.J., may be entering its final chapter, but the problem of homelessness is far from over.
A New Jersey Superior Court judge on Friday, March 15, announced a tentative settlement between the homeless who live in the camp and the Township of Lakewood, on whose land the camp sits, that would move the homeless into housing and eventually result in the closing of the camp.
Both sides seem satisfied -- the lawyers for the homeless and the township both said after today's hearing before Judge Joseph Foster that the agreement addresses their main concerns and it is likely that the homeless residents and the Lakewood Township Council will sign off once it is put in writing.
This is good news both for the neighbors in Lakewood, who have been complaining that the camp is a nuisances and dangerous, and for the homeless, who will move from a precarious existence in the woods to something better.
But it leaves in place the basic systemic flaw that leads to homelessness in the first place -- an economic system that relies on the creation of and socialization of waste to generate profit.
Tent City has garnered national attention over the last couple of years, functioning as a convenient stand-in for news outlets looking to illustrate the destruction wrought by the economic meltdown of 2008-2009.
But Tent City predates the meltdown. Tents began appearing in the woods in Lakewood and elsewhere in Ocean County during the late-1990s, at a time when we supposedly were experiencing explosive economic growth. Over time, with the help of the Rev. Steve Brigham, the homeless centralized their encampment, settling in a wooded tract near the stadium where the Lakewood Blue Claws minor-league team plays. The camp, as it has been constituted for the last few years, is about six or seven years old, though it is difficult to put an official date to it.
The township has been seeking the camp's removal for several years, culminating in a lawsuit seeking the homeless squatters' eviction in 2011. This led to a countersuit by the homeless and a second complaint against the county, accusing it of failing to provide adequate shelter. The Atlantic City Rescue Mission, which is in Atlantic County about an hour south of Lakewood, joined the suit seeking damages from the county. The Rescue Mission says that Ocean -- and many of the state's southern counties -- have been shipping their homeless to the casino-resort town rather than addressing the problem locally.
As far as compromises go, this is a good one, though it is just a partial solution. A lawsuit by the homeless against Ocean County and its social-services department remains active and likely will result in a jury trial this summer -- a reminder that we have a long way to go before we actually get serious about addressing homelessness.
What do I mean by that? Corporate capitalism is about minimizing costs and maximizing revenues. One way it does this is to push the costs of its enterprises on the the larger society. The result has been climate change, deforestation, air and water pollution, overburdened landfills, suburban sprawl, and other environmental ills -- all of which the general public, the society at large, has been forced to deal with. The costs in these cases were socialized, but not the benefits.
The same goes for the banking meltdown. When the financial system teetered at the brink thanks to its hyper-libertarian ethos, it was the public that was asked to bail it out. The banks were made whole with public dollars even though the banks created the problem with their bad behavior. Again, the costs were socialized. As for the benefits? The bankers got their bonuses and the rest of us get growing deficits and higher unemployment.
How does homelessness fit in here? The homeless can be seen as the unfortunate by-product of a corporate capitalism that views workers as interchangeable cogs in a larger machine. For those with limited skill sets (and even for some with higher-level or specific abilities), their compensation -- as the lagging minimum wage shows -- has been disconnected from what it takes to live an even modest existence in most areas, leaving them to fall behind and sometimes fall into homelessness.
For those without skills -- or for those struggling with medical or mental illnesses and addiction -- the system can be far more unforgiving. They have no value, no way -- aside from an inadequate welfare system and patchy set of social services -- to survive in a country that commodifies everything from housing to health care. So we consign them to the scrap heap -- or the woods at the outskirts of a former seaside resort.
This is unsustainable. Housing and utility costs, food prices, health costs, all continue to rise, but wages have stagnated. The minimum wage, which has not been increased nationally in six years, does not pay enough to keep a full-time worker out of poverty. And the companies that rely on these workers -- and provide them with the health insurance, the food, the housing they need -- are earning record profits.
Workers are nothing more than commodities and, as with every other commodity used by our corporate system, their cost to the business sector must be kept to a minimum and excess costs must be socialized.
Tent City in Lakewood -- like the tent encampments that dot the American landscape -- is a symptom of a system in decay. As far as the system is concerned, the homeless and poor are no different than the poisonous emissions pumped out of smokestacks and tailpipes; as far as the system is concerned, they are extraneous by-products. As far as the system is concerned, they are not the system's responsibility. As far as the system goes, their costs must be socialized and paid for by all of us.