Aaron Howe had survived on an island surrounded not by water but by asphalt.
For two years, the 39-year-old was among those staying in a Camden homeless encampment some call “Little Tent City.”
The teardrop-shaped site sits on a wooded patch of land owned by the state Department of Transportation and encircled by the ramp for 10th Street between Federal Street and Admiral Wilson Boulevard.
Howe, a Riverside resident turned unofficial mayor of the encampment, found himself homeless in recent years after his trucking business tanked in the economic recession.
“I had 48 trucks at one time — lost it all,” he mused. “Lost my house, lost everything.”
Howe added the encampment to his list of losses Tuesday. With a loader and a brush cutter, workers cleared the site — also referred to as “The Bowl” — and several like it on nearby state-owned property.
While the encampments have been cleared before, officials claimed Tuesday’s effort would yield different results.
“They won’t have the option to come back as they have in the past,” said Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen.
State Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Schapiro said the push was prompted by complaints, namely from Cooper University Hospital.*
“These encampments are unhealthy — in terms of they’re unsanitary — they’re unsightly, and they’re unsafe,” Schapiro added.
Another issue, officials said, is contractors illegally dumping construction waste at a trash-strewn encampment off Admiral Wilson Boulevard.
Howe’s site was much cleaner by comparison, something he attributed to its residents abiding by self-made rules.
But the encampments also have become hot spots for drugs, according to Keashen. The Camden County spokesman said county health workers filled half of a 5-gallon bucket with used syringes.
“We’re not all drug addicts,” Howe insisted. “I don’t use.
“A lot of the guys, yeah, they might be ex-felons, but they’re trying to get their life together. They might be an ex-felon, but at least they’re trying to find a job.”
Gino Lewis, chairman of the Homeless Network Planning Committee, said everyone in the encampments has been offered shelter.
“Anyone who showed up and wanted to get into VOA (Volunteers of America) shelters, we’ve been able to accommodate them.”
Lewis said 33 beds were available as of Monday.
Howe said the encampment had 23 people living in more than a dozen tents.
About 18 people were put into shelters Tuesday, according to Keashen. Others declined help.
Howe was holding out for a shelter that would accommodate both him and his pregnant girlfriend.
“They want to split us up.”
Howe explained they can’t get into a shelter for families because their child has not yet been born.
“We don’t know where we’re going,” he added. “I have a tent in the bag over there. I might throw up a tent someplace else and keep moving it every day.”
Howe said the site once had as many as 37 people staying there. Among current residents was Melissa Tamaska.
The 27-year-old said she had worked at a school cafeteria in Washington Township for about five years. An addiction to prescription painkillers eventually led her to heroin and Camden’s streets.
Tamaska, a former Mantua resident, has been staying under an overpass near Howe’s encampment for the past few months. The fenced-off area was among the sites workers cleared out.
“Some of these people have been here for years, and it’s like you just got to get up and leave,” she observed.
According to Keashen, homeless outreach groups informed those living at the sites of the state’s plans at least a month and a half ago. Lewis said getting the encampments’ residents into shelters or more permanent housing has been an ongoing project.
Tamaska, who hopes to get clean someday, expressed concern about the availability of beds in shelters, pointing out space is not guaranteed.
“I don’t see no harm in people living right here,” she added of the encampment.
Reach Andy McNeil at email@example.com or (856) 486-2458. Follow him on Twitter @Andy_McNeil.
- *George E. Norcross, III, is the Chairman of Cooper Hospital – Camden Civil Rights Project