HOWELL – A statue of a broken-winged angel greets people as they enter the Howell Transitional Camp, a symbol of its handful of residents who are homeless, but not without hope.
What makes the camp unique is that the piece of land on Route 9 was set aside to help the homeless by Howell Township six months ago.
According to Minister Steve Brigham, who leads the camp and lives there, it’s the only homeless camp in the northeast to be approved by a municipality – which is big. Very few homeless camps across the county receive recognition by the towns they exist in, and most that do are on the west coast.
Today, the transitional camp boasts cooking areas, over a dozen chickens, a chapel area, computer lab and medical tents, and a tiny house, all powered by solar panels.
One family was able to do what the camp is designed for – transition out of it. Before landing there, they were staying at a winter rental in Long Beach Island, but were forced to leave when rates shot up in the summer. The son had earned his master’s degree in biology, but he and his mother were working full-time at a ShopRite in south Jersey and commuting there from the camp 60 miles one way because they still could not afford housing.
The hotel owner in LBI recently called and said they could start staying there again during the week.
“You could just see the bounce in the woman’s step,” said Brigham, sharing that there’s a lot of people out there like this family who want to do the right thing and work, except the cost of living is so high for low-income people.
In late September, Brigham posted a message on Facebook in an attempt to dispel rumors circulating that the camp was shutting down.
“Although we have had a generous outpouring of in kind donations from the surrounding community, we have been struggling to meet the day-to-day expenses of operating the camp,” he wrote.
Some of those expenses include liability insurance required by the township, vehicle maintenance, needs of the residents, infrastructure upkeep, repairs, phone bills, garbage pickup and porta john service, as well as extra blankets, sleeping bags, warmer clothes, socks and gloves as the winter months near.
Brigham said the biggest bill, however, is the propane needed to heat the tents.
“I can tell you firsthand it’s miserable to be without heat during the wintertime,” he said.
Anticipating the limited funds available for propane and the long, cold winter months ahead, he and the Destiny’s Bridge board, which oversees the operation, initially made the decision to find alternate housing for camp residents to ride out the winter. But after an outpouring of support in response to his post and numerous pledges to help through the winter, it looks like they’ll have enough propane to make it through after all.
Most of the 13 people who live in the camp are over 55 years old. Brigham said it’s about half men and half women, although right now the men are slightly outnumbered.
“Nine people go out every day and work pretty much full-time jobs,” he said.
Those who are working, and some who have moved out of the camp entirely, typically have stronger skillsets. Some people who do seasonal work come back to the camp to save money during times when there’s no work available, especially if they have no friends or family to fall back on.
For people who are unskilled, “It’s almost impossible for them to make it in society,” said Brigham, let alone earn enough money to afford housing in this area.
“I believe in creating an economic housing atmosphere where everybody can afford a place to live,” he said, adding that it’s a basic necessity that there should be a housing level for every income level.
Anyone wishing to make a donation to the camp in the form of money, supplies or gift cards to Lowes, Walmart of BJs can send them to Destiny’s Bridge at P.O. Box 692, Lakewood, NJ 08701.