It’s hard to say what really made me want to go visit “Tent City,” a homeless encampment just outside of Philadelphia in Camden NJ. It’s located right off the highway; drive by it and you will see blue tarps that cover tents, looking like dunes poking up off the side of the road.
It may have been a case of Mad Question Asking curiosity or it may have been a bit of “I just miss the non-conformist ways of the homeless people I knew growing up”. (Read about that here in The Homeless Part One.)
I spoke about going to this place for a couple of years before I finally got there. I was much too big of a wuss to go alone. My friend and neighbor, Jude, told me she could get us in there by way of her friend, Brother Karl, a Franciscan friar who goes there on a regular basis. Brother Karl agreed to meet us at the entrance of the encampment a week later.
Jude is an angel of compassion. I use this expression often to describe a certain kind of strong woman. I admire her greatly, which she dismisses as do all champions of the underdog. She is a social worker who, in her own words, rehabilitates under-aged sex offenders. Some are very much under 18. She also started a basketball league for middle-school aged children in the five catholic schools in Camden. Most of these kids never played a sport before. She told me that in her first year with her league, she was giving the kids crap about not practicing and running after school, to which they replied “We aren’t allowed to leave our house.” Some of these kids grow up in Camden neighborhoods that are that dangerous. And this gorgeous woman who works full-time, along with having three of her own kid under the age of four, took it upon herself to start a basketball league for them, so they had a place to play and build confidence. She’s incredible.
Jude suggested we bring water for the residents of the encampment, which I packed in my truck along with my camera in my pocket, and drove less than three miles from my house to Tent City. I got there first and was a bit nervous, for the same reason I didn’t want to go by myself in the first place. Jude and Brother Karl, who wears a Trappist monk robe over his blue jeans, showed up five minutes later and we walked in the encampment.
The first thing that I notice is how much trash they have. It’s stuffed in the bushes and trees, all over the ground and in bags waiting to be picked up off the highway. As a plastic-pollution-obsessed environmentalist lady, this was troublesome for me, and a little annoying. I know where it goes; into the storm drains and out into the ocean. I also assume, perhaps rudely, that nobody’s really all that busy here. Is there no type-A, neat-freak, homeless person living here who could collect all of it in bags or for recycling?
We are met by Lorenzo, who sometimes goes by the name Jamaica, the famous self-professed mayor of Tent City. He is always in the paper, and has a history of running Camden’s homeless encampments for many years. I ask him if the trash belongs to the camp. Yes, but some of it blows in from the highway. I don’t bother addressing the environmental impact to him; I’ve had stay-at-home moms tell me that plastic pollution is too much to think about, so I doubt I’d impart much knowledge here either.
We walk in and I notice that at the fire pit where they cook their meals sit three residents reading newspapers, and two women are sweeping in front of their tents, tents that have large black plastic rat traps in front of them. One young man stops to say hello on his way out of the camp, off to the dentist. He shakes our hands; as a matter of fact every single person we speak to shakes our hands. And as a reformed germaphobe, the old Ingrid is not liking this. There is no bathroom with sink and soap; nobody has freshly washed hands here. I suck it up and let it go. This is no place for prissy-ness.
Watching all the newspaper reading suggests two things to me. One is, with no electricity they have no TV or radio and entertain themselves the old-fashioned way by reading and, two, they must be pretty informed about what’s happening in the world around them.
One of the women sweeping in front of her tent, Tracey, told me that, when she read that Camden’s Mayor Redd was closing some of the shelters in Camden because they were bringing in too high a volume of homeless people to the city, it made her furious.
“Where are we supposed to go?”
She also told me how the applications for assistance cost money and that you have to prove you are homeless. I wondered how you would prove that. She and Lorenzo told me that they’d like to film an interview with Social Services, to show what really happens.
Tracey had been living at Tent City for over a year and kept thanking me for the water, saying it was just in time, that they were all out. She told me that her sister would put her up, but no way was she going to ever live under somebody else’s roof. Her husband had beaten her black and blue for 20 years; she wanted her own house. Lorenzo also mentioned that his wife had a house. It appeared to me that living this way was a choice for some of its residents, that they had roofs to sleep under and decided not to.
Next I spoke to Marianne; she had on makeup and bright clothes. Tracey told me that she didn’t feel like wearing anything other than her sweats but kindly said that Marianne always looked good. Marianne said that it made her feel good to be put together. I could have had that conversation with the other moms at my kid’s school. Her boyfriend looked much younger than her; I watched him walk up to her and shave her lady sideburns. They were lovers, lovebirds. Lorenzo told me this couple refused housing because they couldn’t stay together if they took it. Marianne told me she had five sons who lived with their father in Deptford NJ. I watched this deep affection these two had and took their picture, which they liked. I have to admit that it crossed my mind that I do indeed own my home, but they had something I do not have.
I didn’t do a lot of Mad Question Asking because, the truth is, a lot of MQA is mad listening skills, especially in a new or vulnerable place; but I did ask Marianne and Tracey at one point,
“Who cares about you guys?”
and Tracey replied
“Nobody, we care about each other.”
As I quietly walked around, I didn’t feel unsafe at any point. This appeared to be a highly functioning group of adults, at least whom I met. Remember, one guy even left to go to the dentist while I was there. I stopped at one tent to chat with Corrine. She and Tracy were both charming and funny. She had razor-thin, freshly scabbed cuts on her face, three of them about an inch and a half long. I wanted to know where she got them. She had a lot of items displayed in front of her tent and I wondered if she was selling them; shoes, clothes and condoms that were fanned out. I wanted to take a photo and ask about the condoms. I thought of prostitution and those lovebirds but I didn’t ask because the cuts on her face silenced me.
Before we left I listened to Jude and brother Karl talk about Camden, the social programs and people they work with. I wondered if it was only social workers or anyone involved with the church that care about the poor, check in on them. Is it because they literally see them? Do regular people like you and I care about the poor? Do we even see the poor or are we all wusses, afraid of somebody dirty and unfamiliar?
Maybe I should have shared with them the environmental impact of all that trash, instead of assuming they wouldn’t care any more than some stay-at-home moms do. Who am I to judge what they would want to care about? How different are the residents at Tent City than you and me? I kept thinking about all the breaks I’ve gotten in this life and how, if I started to strip them away, one by one, maybe I’d be living there too.
I’m glad I got to walk through a homeless encampment with a Franciscan friar and an angel of compassion, in the city where I first learned about homelessness at the age of eight. This is my city too, in a way. My grandmother worked in a cigar factory here for $2 a week in the 30s, married an Italian man against her family’s wishes, and they bought a house for $1000 and started a life (that eventually lead to mine) in the Fairview neighborhood of Camden. I’ll be buried here one day, fifty yards north of Walt Whitman’s final resting place in my family’s plot. I should know this place, all of it.
I wanted to see for myself what was going on at Tent City, hear the residents’ stories with my own ears. They care about each other; I like that part of their story best.