By Art Gallagher
The news this morning about the barbeque that the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Knights of Columbus at St. Mary at the Lake Church provided for the homeless people living at the Tent City in Lakewood yesterday reminded me of the first friend I made during my three week stay at the Monmouth County Correctional Institution.
Tent City has been in the news lately as the Lakewood and Ocean County governments are seeking to shut it down, and homeless advocates are seeking to compel those governments to provide shelter to the homeless.
Tent City would be a fascinating case study and debate of the role of big government in addressing social problems. Minister Steve Brigham, a high voltage electrical contractor, started the camp some six years ago on publicly owned land. He never asked anything of the government, including permission. He just started the camp to help people. Over time it grew.
Now, six years later there are suits and counter suits, media coverage and spin which will inevitably lead to more government and less freedom for the homeless and the taxpayers who will end up supporting them.
My friend Ed has gotten a headstart over his community members in receiving taxpayer funded food and shelter against his will.
Ed was brought into the Monmouth County Correctional Institution an hour or so after I was on Saturday morning October 15. While sitting in a holding cell wondering what was going to happen next, I couldn’t help but notice Ed come in. His white hair, orange T-shirt and ripped blue jeans stood out in the parade of men being brought into to the jail by police officers from throughout the county.
I could hear Ed being interviewed by the corrections officer and the nurse who were processing the parade. He was born in 1936. 75 years old. He looked older than my father who will be 80 next month.
I must have lead the parade that morning. I was the only one in the holding cell when the corrections officer and nurse finished processing me. As others arrived, they immediately started talking. Pleading their cases. Why they shouldn’t be there. How the police had violated their rights, etc. For the most part I just listened. By the time Ed was brought into the cell there will several of us there. The other men were pleading their cases to each other. Ed sat next to me and started his pleading.
He was arrested in his tent earlier that morning on a child support warrant! I wouldn’t have guessed that. His bail was set at some $42,000, the amount of his past due child support. “I’m going to be here for three years,” Ed exclaimed.
Over the next few hours Ed told me about his life in Tent City. He would start every day before dawn by bicycling to grocery stores in Lakewood where he had befriended employees who would give him food to bring back to the camp for himself and other residents. He managed to get a copy of the New York Post everyday. He told me about the chickens and his friends, the other residents of the camp.
He wondered if he would be able to get in touch with his sister and if she would bail him out. How much money would he need to get out? He wanted out. Would a judge let him pay off his child support debt at the rate of $100 per month? He receives $140 per month in general assistance, he said. He could manage on $40. I didn’t have it in my heart to point out to him that at $100 per month it would take 35 years to pay off the $42,000 he owed to the mother of his child. If it was going to take $42,000 for Ed to get out of jail, he may have just received a life sentence.
A few hours later Ed and I were both transferred from the holding area to A-1, one of two pods where most all inmates go to be classified before they are moved to other pods in the jail. For the rest of the weekend I got to know Ed a bit. He was a career horse trainer. He was a big fan of the San Francisco Forty Niners. The Forty Niners had a big game against the Detroit Lions that he was looking forward to watching on Sunday. Ed couldn’t see very well. He had glasses but usually didn’t wear them. He was always squinting.
On Monday I was transferred out of A-1 and lost track of Ed for most of the next three weeks. As others from A-1 came into the worker pod where I had been transferred, I asked about him. I also asked about him while at medical and was waiting with other inmates from throughout the jail to see a doctor or nurse. No one recognised him by my description. Maybe he somehow managed to get out. Maybe a judge or other authority realized the futility of incarcerating him.
The day before my release I was walking to visitation and saw Ed. He was in a dormitory type pod without cells that was mostly used to house illegal immigrants who were waiting to be deported. He didn’t look happy. I couldn’t get his attention. On my way back from visitation I waved to Ed who was squinting in my direction. He waved back. I couldn’t tell if he recognized me or remembered me.
He didn’t look happy, even though he had shelter and was in a safe place, getting three meals a day and free medical care.
I don’t know what will become of Ed. It seems as though he will spend the rest of his life in jail and that the mother of his child will never see her $42,000.
There ought to be a better way.