After a traumatic year and a half in which he was beaten, robbed and forced to live at Lakewood’s Tent City, My Dyn finally had a way out.
A friend at the homeless settlement convinced Dyn to sign up for a year of housing paid for by the township as the result of a court case last year. They would move in together and support each other as they worked toward a better life.
“The first two-bedroom apartment that came up would be theirs,” said Mike McNeil, executive director of the nonprofit Solutions to End Poverty Soon, or STEPS, which oversees part of the program.
Two weeks later, Saturday, Dyn was dead.
The son of a Vietnam veteran and a Vietnamese woman, known to his neighbors as Mike, was severely burned inside his tent in the woods off Cedar Bridge Avenue. Police said he was found about 2:10 a.m. near the burning tent. He later died of his injuries.
Homelessness has been controversial across South Jersey, and Atlantic County officials have alleged that homeless from areas such as Ocean County, which does not have its own shelter, have been given one-way tickets to the Atlantic City Rescue Mission. Advocates say the problem never has been adequately addressed, forcing the homeless to seek shelter wherever they can find it, including settlements such as Tent City.
The Corporation for Supportive Housing, which conducts an annual count of the homeless, found 1,840 homeless on one day last year in the four counties that make up The Press of Atlantic City coverage area.
Neighbors and officials who’ve worked at Tent City say the fire probably started as result of a wood stove Dyn, like most of the homeless residents there, used to keep warm.
“He survived the initial fire and walked out of the tent but was so horribly burned he died of burns at the scene,” said Jeffrey Wild, the attorney who represented the 35-year-old Dyn and the other residents pro bono in their case against the township.
Lakewood initially sought to evict the residents of Tent City, charging some of them criminally, while claiming the impromptu settlement was a nuisance. In an agreement reached last March, the township would pay to house 122 of them for a year.
But officials familiar with the case say the process of finding homes for the Tent City’s residents didn’t begin until around Christmas. Wild said just 35 residents have been placed in apartments or motel rooms.
The Rev. Steve Brigham, who has lived at Tent City for four years and is a leader of the community, said there’s a lot of resentment in the camp about the pace of resettlement.
“They went through a whole winter they didn’t need to go through,” he said Saturday. “A lot of people had to suffer through the winter out in the woods.”
The residents arrived in Lakewood from across New Jersey and the country through a variety of circumstances. Once there, churches and other organizations have assisted them, providing food and tents, but Brigham said it’s still a difficult life.
Brigham said Dyn was born in Vietnam, where he attended culinary school. He worked at various restaurants and moved around frequently, from Vietnam to Taiwan and Tokyo.
More than year ago, Brigham said his friend was at the Lakewood bus station on his way to a job in Colorado when he was beaten and robbed. The perpetrators stole his bag, which held his bus ticket and all of his money. That’s how Dyn ended up at the Tent City, Brigham said.
But despite his recent hardships and a struggle with alcoholism, everyone who knew Dyn — from Brigham to McNeil to Wild — described him a warm and friendly presence in the camp.
“When he’d see me, he’d say, ‘I love you brother’,” Brigham said. “He was a very kind-hearted, appreciative person. It’s a tremendous loss for us.”
Dyn lived in a 14-by-12-foot tent with a small bed with a box spring but no frame and a wood-burning stove. Brigham said the tent, donated by a local church, was reminiscent of the kind used by “hunters who go out for a week out west.”
It’s likely Dyn used that stove Friday night.
While temperatures were relatively mild compared to the rest of this cold and snowy winter, National Weather Service data show the minimum in Lakewood reached 30 degrees on Saturday.
“You may have needed to take the nip out of the air,” Brigham said. “It was enough, where if you wanted to be comfortable sitting up, you’d want a fire going.”
McNeil said finding homes for the residents of Tent City is a difficult task, but Dyn probably would not have long to wait. He was near the top of the list, he said.
But the nonprofit, which was contracted by Lakewood to make the placements, faces a plethora of challenges that can delay the process.
“The hardest part was getting people to come in and register and take them through the process,” McNeil said. “It’s a big process they have to go through.”
Dyn is one example of that, he said, since it took the urging of another resident to get him to take that first step.
McNeil said one factor that complicates the process is how long an individual has been homeless. Those who’ve lived this way for a long time can be resistant to change and a few who’ve been placed have returned to the Tent City, he said.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “If you’ve been doing this for years and years, you have friends out there. It’s a tough job; it really is.”
Not all landlords are comfortable accepting tenants who’ve been homeless, McNeil said, including a small percentage with a history of addiction or criminal records.
Even landlords willing to take them may still face delays due to inspections and other municipal requirements. And once the homeless are placed, they’ll still need support services and steady jobs if there’s any hope they’ll succeed past the first year.
McNeil said all of those factors have contributed to the delay in clearing Lakewood’s Tent City. The township allocated $250,000 to start the program, he said, but STEPS has used “nowhere near that yet.”
A message left for Lakewood Mayor Menashe Miller was not returned Saturday.
The homeless problem, both in Ocean County and the state as a whole, reaches far beyond Lakewood’s well-publicized camp.
McNeil said he recently spoke out at a town hall meeting with Gov. Chris Christie about the state’s lack of attention to affordable housing. There’s a perception that the homeless are irredeemable or simply lazy, he said.
“Maybe they need to take a walk through the Tent City sometime,” he said. “People think the Tent City is bad, but there are good people, people who work hard.”
Those who knew Dyn said he had until recently worked in maintenance at a yeshiva, or Orthodox Jewish school, in Lakewood, but didn’t have enough money to move out of Tent City.
Wild said the township has committed to housing the 122 residents he represented or were present for the census last May, but the most recent county-wide point-in-time count put the homeless population at about 500. The actual numbers are probably much larger, he said.
While he applauds Lakewood’s efforts, Wild said Ocean County needs a shelter to accommodate all the homeless who won’t benefit from its program.
“I think Lakewood is working diligently,” he said. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t fast enough to save Mike’s life.”
Contact Wallace McKelvey:
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