By DON STINE
Homelessness in Neptune was an issue at this week’s Township Committee meeting, with residents offering a variety of opinions on what officials should do.
“This is a real problem and it does not get enough attention. A more permanent fix is what the target should be,” Mt. Carmel Baptist Church Rev. Edmond Lee Sr. said at the meeting.
A group of 10 people, who are known as “The Woodsmen of Neptune,” live in a wooded lot behind the ShopRite, off Neptune Boulevard, near Route 66. The camp has been there for about seven years but it came to public attention recently due to the extremely cold weather and a death at the camp with a man reportedly having a heart attack and falling into a fire.
Neptune Mayor Nicholas Williams said he heard about the homeless group’s plight during the recent cold spell and was able to get donations from clergy and others to temporarily place the homeless in the Crystal Inn motel, on the Asbury Park circle. They are back in their camp now.
Homeless camp resident Carlos Santiago thanked people at Monday’s meeting for their recent support. He said the local homeless “lack from a lack of resources.”
“We want to have a home and to know that these lives matter,” he said.
He said that many homeless would like to have their own place but never have enough money to put down a security deposit and pay the first month’s rent, or to put down-payments on utilities. Santiago said there are many vacant buildings in Neptune and other nearby communities that could be used to house the homeless.
“How many lives need to be lost before there is a solution. I like camping but more than two years is too much. It’s time to move on. Nobody wants to be homeless, but there are people out there” he said.
Williams said township officials have been meeting with various organizations to deal with the problem and come up with a permanent solution.
“But this is going to take time.,” he said.
But some people owning property near the homeless camp said on Monday night that the homeless camp raises serious safety issues.
“This (camp) is not safe for the neighborhood. Sometimes they are loud and drunk and there is propane and gas near open fires,” said one resident, who asked to not be identified.
“We don’t want our neighborhood burnt down because of this. We would like them out as fast as possible,” he said.
Another neighbor said basically the same thing- that it is a safety concern and that he and his neighbors do not want to be labeled as uncompassionate.
“It’s not that we are not compassionate- we are and have even helped them on occasions. But this is about the health and safety of our neighborhood. We are all concerned but we have to be serious here. There is propane and gasoline near open fires,” he said.
He said that if this were occurring anywhere else in the township, it would not be allowed.
“We’re worried about the neighborhood. We raise our family’s here,” he said.
Another township resident said no one wants to see anybody get hurt.
Other residents and homeless advocates said that the local housing authority should get involved and that Neptune should be in the front lines of this fight to provide housing.
Rev. Steven A. Brigham, founder of Destiny’s Bridge- a homeless advocacy group- said that there needs to be a “methodical elimination” of homelessness by creating affordable housing. He said that this cannot be a temporary fix and that a long-term solution needs to be developed.
Brigham said that a person living in this area needs to make $22 an hour to live a modest life.
“We all have the right to basic needs,” he said.
Neptune Committeeman Michael Brantley said Neptune has already exceeded its quota imposed by the state to provide affordable housing.
“There seems to be a perfect storm here…and we need to start thinking outside of the box,” he said
Dorothy Argyros, a founder of the Monmouth County Coalition for the Homeless, said she wants to see local and county governments move forward on this issue.
“If you have the will to do it,” she said.
Former Neptune Mayor Randy Bishop said the township should look at its upcoming Master Plan review to look into the problem.
“I know that Neptune could be in the forefront of this,” he said.