Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Wyckoff lawyer Jeffrey Wild helping tent city stave off evictions

From the Bergen Record (May 31, 2011; Erik Shilling/staff writer:

Nina Rogala, left, has been living in Lakewood's tent city for about three years. Mark Mroczek, right, has been there about eight months.
For nearly a year Jeffrey J. Wild has spent his free time working on behalf of dozens of homeless men and women who are being threatened with eviction from a tent city they have established on publicly owned land in Ocean County.
Wild, 51, sees the case as more than just a local or regional issue, arguing that thousands of homeless people across New Jersey could benefit from his push to expand their rights to shelter on public land.
Name: Jeffrey J. Wild
Working pro bono, Wild has filed a suit on behalf of dozens of homeless men and women in Ocean County who are being evicted from their home on public land.
Hometown: Wyckoff
Occupation: Attorney
Age: 51
Education: B.A., Cornell University, 1982. J.D., Columbia University, 1985
Quote: "I have learned that New Jersey's 'safety net' is full of holes - and that men, women and children are falling through them, and hitting the ground every day."
"When it's a subfreezing night when we wouldn't send our pets outside, these people are being told they have to leave," Wild said at a May 5 hearing on the matter in Toms River. "The safety net cannot have holes."
Wild first met the tent city residents on a trip with other volunteers from the Barnert Temple synagogue in Franklin Lakes<>. The pro-bono legal work he has done on their behalf takes up much of his time when he isn't helping to run the capital markets litigation team at Lowenstein Sandler, a Roseland-based law firm.
The case originated last summer, when the township of Lakewood sued for the right to remove most of the tent city residents from a patch of woods on township-owned land near a highway.
A judge initially ruled in the township's favor, saying that the residents had to vacate once the government found another place for them to stay. But Wild filed a counterclaim late last year, arguing that the government's temporary accommodations were a waste of money - some of the homeless had been put up in hotel rooms for $100 per night - and that the tent city residents had an implicit "right-to-shelter" under the state constitution that should allow them to stay on public land indefinitely.
Township officials responded by saying that the tent city, which includes an outhouse, tepees and livestock, was an environmental and safety hazard.
Township and county officials also said that the county's network of seven homeless shelters was sufficient, and that they had gone out of their way to offer temporary accommodations to the tent city residents.
"There is a difference between the government's authority to provide services and their obligation to do so," said Jean Cipriani, a lawyer for the Ocean County Board of Social Services. "There are many things that the government must do, but this is not one of them."
In North Jersey, advocates for the homeless said that they weren't aware of any large encampments of homeless people.
Advocates are aware of some men, usually itinerant workers, who live along the banks of the Passaic<> and Saddle rivers. But those encampments ordinarily involve just a few men, not dozens as in the Lakewood case.
The most recent official estimates suggest that around 1,400 homeless men and women live in Bergen County<>, and a comparable number live in Passaic County<>.
"If there was any group like that in the city of Hackensack<>, the police would've disbanded them long ago," said Robin Reilly, who founded the FAITH Foundation, a homeless services non-profit, in 2002. "But there are people out there. I know they're there. They call me in the morning because they want someone to know where to look."
Reilly said that the Lakewood tent city had a better shot at remaining because of its size.
"There's strength in numbers," she said.
For Wild, the issue isn't simply a question of right versus wrong. He also sees it from the standpoint of someone who has been personally touched by homelessness.
"My father was homeless at times during the Great Depression, so I have always known that, with just a little bad luck, any of us could be unable to make our monthly rent or mortgage," he said.
Wild's connection to the homeless in Lakewood started through an outreach program at Barnert Temple, which has been donating food, clothing, kerosene stoves and other equipment to the tent city residents since 2007.
"It's really rooted in the idea that every human being has worth," said Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple.
"When it became clear over time that the Lakewood community was interested in ejecting them and they had no place to go, Jeff became very concerned."
The suit faces uncertain prospects in the courts. Wild said that he was pleased that Superior Court Judge Vincent Grasso in Ocean County allowed parts of his counterclaim to go forward at the May 5 hearing. But Grasso dismissed Wild's broadest argument against the encampment crackdown - that it violated the state constitution.
"The issue in this case is not the plight of the homeless, but the procedural process," Grasso said. He also questioned both sides about specific state laws that the county was violating.
In response, Wild pointed to a long history of laws that he said applied to the Lakewood case, including the so-called Elizabethan Poor Laws, which he said firmly establish the state's obligation to provide food and shelter for its citizens.
But Cipriani, the Ocean County lawyer, called the Poor Laws "antiquated," and noted that some date to pre-colonial America.
Grasso seemed to agree, but instead of dismissing the case outright he gave Wild 45 days to "amend and amplify" his claim. Wild said Friday that he would file an expanded claim on July 1.
After that, a new hearing date may be set.
For the tent city residents, that means their encampment is safe - at least for now.
Several residents who attended the hearing seemed to take the judge's decision in stride even as they decried the process.
Michael Berenzweig, 61, said that he took up residence in the tent city more than a year ago as he and his wife suffered through a long stretch of unemployment. The two have since raised chickens there and maintain a makeshift home.
Berenzweig said he reacted to the judge's ruling with indifference.
"To me it's just a lot of dragging things on," he said. "People aren't looking at the gigantic issue in this thing, that homelessness and starvation could be solved. Everyone's ignoring it."

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