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‘Tent City’: Photographer Provides a Glimpse at Life Inside a New Jersey Homeless Camp

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4 April 2014 – One of several fires in the past week has destroyed a tent. Some camp residents have died in fires over the past few years.

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4 April  2014 – Various monthly government subsidies have come through for many in the camp, and the group has purchased several hundred dollars of crack. Dawn smokes while John and Bear wait their turn.

Located in Lakewood, New Jersey, Tent City has become home for over 100 people living outside the boundaries of social norms. The camp has been a source of immense controversy since it first took form seven years ago. On one side, there are the local residents who wish to see it closed and on the other, advocacy groups demanding it remain open. Upon discovering the camp, and hearing the debates of from both sides, photographer Christopher Occhicone decided to investigate. His series Fringe provides an honest look at life inside Tent City.

Occhicone soon fell in with a small group of residents and got to know them extremely well, sometimes staying with them up to 20 hours at a time. “They invited me as Chris, not Chris the photographer,” he says. Sometimes he wouldn’t photograph at all, instead he would just visit, eat and have a beer. At other times, he found himself in the middle of conflicts, or acting as the voice of reason. “They were often incredibly brutal to each other,” he recalls. A few times he had to step in and break up fights or diffuse heated situations.

There were many reasons why people chose to stay at Tent City. Life there was convenient. Their drug and alcohol needs were met by cash received from odd jobs, petty crime and social security. Thanks to donations, there was always food and clothes available, so much that food often sat rotting and people burned clothes rather than wash them. There was a liquor store within five minutes walking distance and a crack dealer across the street. Other drugs were easily purchased in the camp.

During Occhicone’s time at Tent City, the town was in the process of shutting it down. They were offering a year of free housing to those who would leave. He quickly realized the solution is not that simple. Many of the residents of Tent City battle with drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness, while others have outstanding arrest warrants preventing them from obtaining the free shelter being offered. Without proper support and services, simply relocating the residents doesn’t address the deeper psychological issues they are faced with.

Despite all this, the encampment was successfully shut down by the town and residents have moved elsewhere.

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8 March 2014 – Inside Tent City’s chapel, “Uncle Mike” dances salsa with Eve. Uncle Mike says he lives in Tent City by choice. He says he is a reformed gang member who found God. He says he may be a prophet.

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16 March 2014 –  Samantha is upset after Andrew became jealous and aggressive with her for talking about her ex-husband and her 5 children, who had been taken away by social services.

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16 March 2014 – Andrew, diagnosed as paranoid and schizophrenic, and his pregnant fiancée Samantha in bed in their tent after an argument.

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20 March 2014 – A piano in a makeshift courtyard.

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22 March 2014 – Eve and her husband Chris argue. She accuses him of having sexual relations with a male friend. He denies it. He eventually would run off with the friend in question, leaving a pregnant Eve behind.

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29 March 2014 – Andrew, who is diagnosed with paranoia and schizophrenia and his pregnant fiancée Samantha, who is an alcoholic, use their smart phone to look up the effects their condition may have on their unborn child.

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4 April 2014 – Chris earned $100 the previous day. To celebrate, Eve will buy some good booze. Chris cannot purchase it himself as he is not yet 21.

All images © Christopher Occhicone

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