By WILLIAM CLARK
Neptune residents have asked township officials to address the growing population of unhoused people in the woods behind the ShopRite plaza on Neptune Boulevard. Two homeowners from Cardinal Road spoke at a recent meeting and brought up concerns they had with the encampment.
“Believe me, I have compassion for anyone that does not have a home and has to live in the woods,” Karen Mason said. “It’s a horrific situation. But it’s gone on for way too long. We’re talking a decade.”
Mason said that she is concerned about children living in the encampment and the dangers that colder temperatures pose during the winter months.
“Let’s come together and figure this out now,” Mason said. “Do we want these children to freeze to death? We’ve had a mild winter, thank God.”
Mason said that a neighbor on nearby Hoover Road recently witnessed a man in the camp defecating near the woods.
“This is breaking the law and is a Board of Health issue,” she said.
In addition, Mason said that garbage is piling up behind the shopping complex. She estimates about 40 or 50 people are currently living in the encampment.
Gary Brown, also of Cardinal Road, said that their neighborhood’s location makes them unique in their issues.
“I would venture to say that there are no other parts of Neptune that have the problems we’re having,” Brown said.
Brown also has issues with the garbage that has collected in the area, pointing to those that provide assistance to people living in the encampments.
“People are trying to help them, which I totally understand,” he said. “But with that comes garbage and refuse.”
Brown said he has spoken to township officials about potential ways to create a barrier between the neighborhood and the encampment, including fencing and trees.
Brown also voiced concerns about potential drug use among those living in the encampment.
“Their drug use is so bad that they come out and look like zombies bouncing around,” he said.
Brown also believes that drug and alcohol dependency is what is preventing people living in the encampment from finding shelters.
“This is a complex issue that the township cannot solve alone and we are reaching out to county and state agencies for help and guidance in this,” Mayor Keith Cafferty said. “We will continue to do the best we can for those in the camps and the residents that live in the surrounding neighborhoods.”
Steve Brigham of the nonprofit Destiny’s Bridge in Freehold says that the camp currently consists of about 25 people. He believes that the average age is between 45 to 50 years old.
He has been working with the camp for about three years now.
In discussing trash Brigham said that the people in the camp try to use the dumpsters that some of the businesses have provided even though it is not in close proximity. But Brigham says it’s tough to avoid trash since so much litter surrounds the area.
“Our society is a throwaway society and everything is packaged.” Brigham said. “It’s going to become trash.”
Even with litter blowing in, Brigham said they try to maintain their area.
“They’ve been doing a good job of keeping things relatively clean there,” he said.
Brigham, who has worked with the former tent city in Lakewood, tries to help out those in need once a week. Others from around the area pitch in individually or through groups. Brigham pointed to the Calvary Chapel in Toms River as a group that brought coats, gloves and propane tanks.
“My guess is there are probably about six churches that help out on a regular basis,” he said.
The challenges that people face may start with economics and housing in the region.
“For minimum wage or even slightly above minimum wage, it’s impossible to find housing in the area,” Brigham said. “You almost need two good incomes to make ends meet these days.”
But Brigham doesn’t place the responsibility of providing solutions squarely on Neptune. Helping those in need should start at the county level, Brigham said.
“There’s about 40 beds total for Monmouth County,” he said “Out of those 40 beds, there’s only three beds for women. Between Ocean County and Monmouth County, you have a million and a half people county wise and three beds for women. It’s grossly inadequate. We need about 100 times that for these women. They are an underserved population and vulnerable. Both counties should be ashamed of themselves that they don’t have more beds for homeless women.”
For an example of appropriate assistance, Brigham pointed to Bergen County.
“Bergen County has their act together when it comes to helping the homeless,” he said. “There’s a 90 bed emergency shelter that if anyone becomes homeless they can go right to this shelter. “
Brigham places the blame on politicians who believe that providing shelters will attract those in need. Without a viable refuge, the unhoused will move on to counties that do have shelters.
“They are shirking their responsibilities,” Brigham said.
Brigham said one solution could come in the form of a bill through the state legislature that says all counties must provide assistance in proportion to their population.
If that law took effect, “we would have a fair and just society when it comes to homelessness in New Jersey,” Brigham said.