CAMDEN — Cars speed north and south on I-676, most of the occupants not thinking much about the city below, its problems, its challenges, its people.
The city in question, though, is not Camden. It’s a small city of homeless people living under the interstate — as many as 30 people at a given time under the massive pilings that support the highway, and more tucked into the wooded areas along 676 and railroad tracks that run parallel to it.
On Monday morning, Tom Peculski, a volunteer with Helping Hands Homeless Outreach Program, clambered over the guardrails, calling out to those in tents in the growth and navigating a narrow dirt path down toward the area under the highway.
“Hello!” he called. “Outreach, coming in!”
He had been out there on Sunday until nearly midnight as well, hoping to get as many of the encampment’s occupants into some sort of shelter or housing before a contingent of county agencies moved in to clear the encampment as completely as possible.
Most of the occupants, Peculski said, had left, taking their meager belongings with them in bags he’d given them. Some stopped by his car on their way out, taking water from a cooler, talking with outreach workers from Volunteers of America, or making their way to Joseph’s House, a nearby homeless shelter, or the streets of South Camden.
Peculski admitted his all-volunteer outreach didn’t always work well with other agencies. Last year, another homeless encampment just across Atlantic Avenue drew complaints from neighbors about trash and drug paraphernalia, and he said HHOP was accused of enabling people there by bringing them food and supplies.
Now, Peculski said, he’s working together with Camden County officials, Camden County Police, VOA and others to help clear problematic encampments, warning occupants ahead of time, and hopefully getting them whatever help they need to get off the streets.
He’s earned the trust of the people who live in these encampments — people like Pete LaRosa, who emerged from his tent under 676.
Above and below
“I was trying to clean up,” LaRosa said as he shared an Arizona mango iced tea with another resident, pouring half the can into a metal water bottle for him.
LaRosa wore a black rosary around his neck as he ambled around the encampment, as well as the scars and marks that come with addiction and life on the streets.
Piles of trash, two-, three- and four-person tents, clothing, mattresses and food containers were all over the large area under the highway. Brightly-colored graffiti marked nearly every reachable concrete surface, and wasps, flies and mosquitoes buzzed anyone who moved. A red armchair and a broken nightstand were next to a mattress with an old pillow and blankets. Milk crates served as shelves.
Traffic roared above; heavy machinery moved metal and other materials at an EMR Recycling yard next to the encampment.
A woman living in a wooded area down the railroad tracks who did not want her name published said some of the camp’s residents have been stealing scrap from the recycling yard, alerting authorities to their presence and drawing police — and, she believes, causing authorities to clear the encampments.
LaRosa, who said he’s lived in Camden and Los Angeles, was released from prison in November. He was kicked out of a VOA shelter, he said, for violating curfew and that infraction and a drug distribution charge have kept him from receiving any assistance other than food vouchers.
He’s still in active addiction, he admitted. He began sniffing heroin at 19, enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and said he was traumatized while helping with cleanup efforts at Ground Zero after the 9/11 terror attacks, which led him to begin shooting heroin.
He was kicked out of the military, he said, and has struggled with addiction, incarceration and homelessness ever since.
Asked where he might go after the encampment, he paused for a long time, bowing and then shaking his head.
“I don’t know,” he finally said. “I’m a grown man. I should be able to figure out things out on my own.”
Peculski asked him if he wanted to go to a detox facility and promised to help him, ticking off the names of local rehab facilities that might have openings. He asked LaRosa how often he’s getting high, and LaRosa said he’s been using “as much as I can get,” usually five to six bags of heroin daily, as well as cocaine and marijuana. He collects spent needles from his tent and others’, and brings them to a needle exchange on Mount Ephraim Avenue.
‘An incomplete sentence’
Rob Jakubowski, Camden County’s homeless services coordinator, said there are many challenges to helping homeless people: their mistrust of authority, the strong grip of addiction, and the complexity of the problems many of them face. Many people living on the streets are dealing with addiction, chronic physical and mental health problems, lack of identification and documents necessary for services.
“To say ‘They don’t want help’ is an incomplete sentence,” he said. “They don’t want help today. That doesn’t mean they never will.”
Monday’s timing was good for some of those in the encampments, said Peculski, as a bad batch of heroin had been making the rounds, and there had been overdoses, including a fatal one, that spooked many of the people struggling with addiction.
Back further in the woods, Charles Henderson had a tent tucked far from any of the others. A cat slinked over, meowing at Peculski as he approached.
“They know us, too,” Peculski said, as HHOP brings food for cats and dogs who live among the homeless people, donated by Homeward Bound Animal Shelter and others.
Henderson, a Camden native, said he grew up in the suburbs and has been on and off the streets for about five years, but will soon go live in a family home in Merchantville. He’s got lupus and other health problems, he said, but still he works, doing odd jobs, fixing up houses for flippers and making repairs for homeowners.
Work, though, has been unsteady and unpredictable, and he complained about people who steal what little he has.
“Look,” he said, showing a gash in his bicycle’s front tire. “Why would someone do this? That’s not stealing, it’s just destroying someone else’s stuff.”
He showed where the cord connecting the bike’s brakes to the handlebars was cut, a look of disgust on his face. Mosquitoes buzzed all over, but that didn’t bother him nearly as much as the damage to the bike he relies upon to get to work.
Still, Peculski said Henderson is a respected presence among the homeless people in the area, someone who helps those who need it when he can, and who acts as a go-between with the outreach workers and the people they’re trying to help.
Another respected elder, “Country,” had a tent down an embankment off the highway, away from the main encampment in the woods.
Country has been homeless off and on for 18 years. He suffered from stokes, mental illness, suicide attempts, depression and incarceration.
“I got locked up and lost everything,” he said, but a spiritual experience led him back to the streets: “I made myself homeless.”
“I am trying to do what I can, what God gave me to do. I kept trying to kill myself but I never did, and I realized God wouldn’t let me die, so I stopped trying. He must have some other reason for me to stay.”
Country, whose given name is Vincent White, talks to other homeless people, helping them connect with outreach workers and get help for their addictions and other chronic problems. He tries to mediate disputes, to keep a sense of community among the residents of the encampments, and to foster the feeling that while they may not have much, they have each other — and they need to look out for one another as much as possible.
“People just need to realize there’s someone who cares about them, if they allow themselves to care for themselves,” he said. “I just want people here to unite and stick together.”
Homeless people struggle not only with addiction and mental illness, but also additional challenges of everyday life that most people take for granted, he said.
“It’s hard to ‘just get a job’ when you don’t have an alarm clock. It’s hard to keep in touch when you can’t keep your phone charged or you don’t have one at all. It’s hard to get any peace or a moment of tranquility when you have to constantly move here or move there, move this or that, when you have to keep an eye on all your things all the time.”
Public health, safety concerns
People like Peculski help by lending their phones so people can touch base with loved ones, letting them know they’re safe. They bring food and clothes, but also hope and information about social services, so when someone is tired of life on the streets, there might be a place for them to go.
Still, Peculski described himself as “a realist,” and he knows homeless encampments pose hazards not only for those living in them but also for residents in the neighborhoods whose children have to dodge spent needles on their way to school, who don’t want trash dumped on their streets, who worry about transient people endangering their safety.
The camp, he noted, went from one tent to more than 25 within weeks. There have been overdoses and fires.
“This is a real health and safety problem,” he said. A lot of encampment residents have not been vaccinated against COVID-19, either, making a health crisis potentially even worse as the delta variant spreads.
Dan Keashen agreed the encampments are not a mere nuisance — they’re an ongoing public health and safety problem.
The Camden County spokesman said police officers, public works employees, hazardous materials teams, homeless outreach workers, and others took part in the cleanup, which occurred on Monday but was been planned well in advance. Residents, he said, are told long before the cleanup that they needed to vacate, and help was offered to get them into shelters or shelters.
“There is not one marker” for action to be taken, he said. Rather, “we try to intercede or interdict before there’s imminent harm or potential for loss of life, and as you can see from being back there, there is significant evidence of narcotic use.”
The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered a lot of addiction programs, he added, but now that restrictions are being lifted, there are more openings at treatment facilities. Shelters have opened at fuller capacities, and libraries reopening means more homeless people can use their computers to access social services, employment programs, obtain ID, and get other help.
Most of those who are offered help, Keashen said, accept it.
“We’ve been asking ourselves, are the services offered effective? Are we helping people get back on their feet and stay there?”
Peculski said while HHOP wants to help, “we also don’t want to make them feel like this is a camping trip.”
“We call them our friends, because that’s what they are,” he said. “But obviously I can’t cure their homelessness and all their problems today. There’s really no one positive answer; we learned last year that shock and awe, going in with bulldozers, doesn’t work. We let them know well in advance, and a lot of them have already vacated.”
The Deptford resident and longtime EMT, walking back along Atlantic Avenue toward his car, sighed heavily.
“We’ll be back out here,” he said, as two small groups of people shot up under the overpass. “Unfortunately, this will all pop up again soon.”
Phaedra Trethan has been a reporter and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered Camden and surrounding areas since 2015, concentrating on issues relating to quality of life and social justice for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal. She’s called South Jersey home since 1971. Contact her with feedback, news tips or questions at [email protected], on Twitter @By_Phaedra, or by phone at 856.486-2417.
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