Complicated paths continue after Tent City rescue

May 22, 2011 - 12:14 AM
Striking The Tents

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009 file photograph, a man makes a fire to keep warm after an overnight snowfall in Camden, N.J.'s Tent City where he lives with other homeless people. A year after the closing of the Tent City community, some of the former homeless have found homes, and happiness, though others are following twists and turns that originally led them to the streets. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — The charter bus arrived on a warm day in May a year ago, and when the doors opened, close to 50 people climbed aboard. They brought with them hopes for a better future — in decent homes, free of drugs and crime and all the woes that come of living on the margins.

For days, months or years, they had been living in a rag-tag city of tents, tucked away in the woods near Camden's downtown. Then, Amir Khan — a pastor and entrepreneur — came along and promised them homes for a year.

It was a bold effort to fix a complicated problem in a hurry. Khan figured he could rent homes for this band of homeless people and that with a lot of help and just as much faith, they might flourish.

Not everyone was eager to board the bus. Some disappeared into the urban wilderness in the days before Tent City closed.

But others embraced the opportunity: The woman whose four children had been taken away from her, because of her depression. The carpenter who was desperate to make a decent life so he could reconnect with his toddler. The ex-con who never knew a normal life and struggled to stay sober and out of prison.

Fifty-four people went with Khan in all, some of them first making a stop at a detoxification program.

Television cameras were there to record the end of Tent City; it was a feel-good story.

But a year later, Khan's experiment has had mixed success. Some of the former homeless have found homes, and happiness — kicking heroin habits, enrolling in community college. Others' lives, though, are following the same twists and turns that originally led them to Tent City.

A bus can take you off the street, but it can't keep you off the street. Life's more complicated than that.

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It was Amir Khan's son, Micah, who got his father interested in Tent City. Local authorities had decided to close the encampment, but deadlines came and went. Micah Kahn visited the site, in the woods next to a highway exit a few blocks from downtown.

He shot video there, and showed it to his father — an entrepreneur who has owned a number of businesses, including an early cell phone company and a bowling alley, and founded the Solid Rock Worship Center, an evangelical church in Camden's suburbs.

Within a few days, Amir Khan raised money from parishioners and friends to supplement his own. He figured he could house and feed all 54 people for a year for about $250,000.

Their program — "New Life" — was invented on the fly. The plan was to get people temporary homes immediately, while using existing outside agencies to provide intensive counseling, drug programs and job training. Beyond that, Khan provided mentors to try to give the clients moral support and guide them to find other help.

New Life would replace a peculiarly thriving community of the homeless. Tent City had a mayor and a set of rules; it operated for about four years.

"You always had somebody to talk to," says Marvin Tomlinson. "We were a close-knit family."

For Tomlinson, this was a real home, a place where he had responsibilities like chopping wood and starting the fire for the camp cooks.

Tomlinson bounced for years between Tent City and an inpatient treatment center for people with mental health problems and drug addictions. A wiry 5-foot-2, Tomlinson was perpetually sullen; he robbed and beat people, he says.

Still, it was a relatively stable time in his life.

When Tomlinson was 3, his father killed his mother. Tomlinson himself left school in seventh grade. And when Marvin was a 19-year-old gang member, he fatally stabbed the mother of his own newborn daughter.

Tomlinson spent the next 15 years in state prison. When he came out, a hardened man in his mid-30s, he almost immediately developed a crack addiction. He stayed with his grandmother for a time before ending up on the streets, becoming one of Tent City first inhabitants.

After Tent City shut down, he shared a Spartan apartment in nearby Pennsauken. He was proud to show off his new place. He was figuring out how to stretch his food budget. He sometimes ate dinners out with his two adult daughters — including the daughter of the woman he killed. He found himself smiling.

For the first time in his adult life, he was both free and sober.

He tried to avoid his old friends, knowing he could easily succumb to drugs if he was around them. He says he relapsed once in those first weeks on his own, and immediately regretted getting high. He was letting down Pastor Khan and all the other people who were rooting for him.

"When I slipped up, I could have gotten away with it. But it would have eaten me up knowing that I have all the support now," he said.

He didn't last long in the apartment. Micah Khan says he was kicked out for having trouble-causing guests; Tomlinson says he left on his own because the apartment manager was hassling him.

He resettled at a shelter in Atlantic City and had easy access to a drug and mental health treatment program nearby. But there was a surprise raid of his shelter and he was arrested for failure to pay child support. That meant a couple weeks in jail. Emerging in December, he went back to the streets.

On a warm March day, he sat on the barrier along a busy Camden road eating a plate of pasta provided by an outreach group. He was staying in a shelter in Camden, engaged to a woman, and hoping to get a job at a day center for the homeless.

He was also hoping to get an apartment soon and into a new drug treatment program, even thinking of quitting cigarettes.

A year after the promise of one new start, he's looking for another one.

"Each day I wake up," he said, "is a blessing."

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The population of Tent City changed frequently; people came and went. Jack Maltese, 45, was there just a week before Khan arrived.

Maltese, whose hair is slicked back to reveal a crude tattoo of a hammer on his forehead, used to be a carpenter but he hasn't been able to work for years because of a back injury that led to an addiction to painkillers. He's also struggled with depression.

In April 2010, he was living in a supportive housing program in the suburban community of Audubon when police found 18 marijuana plants he was growing in his closet there. Kicked out of the house, he found his way to Tent City and was barely settled when Khan arrived.

Maltese was eager for a fresh start. He was assigned mentors and, as an ex-con, drew special attention from Micah Amir.

The younger Amir had served nearly two years in prison on drug and gun charges, and after he was released in 2007, he launched the Nehemiah Group, an arm of his father's church that seeks to help former inmates rejoin society. Through the foundation, Micah Khan took charge of helping Tent City's residents as they moved first to a pair of hotels, and then dispersed. Several lived at some point in one of the two homes the foundation uses to house former inmates.

By late summer, Maltese was in the Nehemiah Group's home in Gloucester City, a blue-collar town adjacent to Camden. He said he was not getting high, and was going to his methadone program. He'd spend some days on a bench staring at the Delaware River, hoping that things were really turning around.

His ex-girlfriend was at least partially persuaded. She brought their toddler to a family reunion he attended. Finally, he thought, he might be a father to a son he hadn't seen in two years, the boy whose photos he'd proudly show off on his cell phone.

There were also indications he was about to get a disability settlement worth tens of thousands of dollars. Lunch, Maltese promised friends and acquaintances, would be on him.

While some of his former neighbors were already back on the streets — and resentful, believing that New Life had not done enough — Maltese was grateful. "If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be here today," he said. "I never had nobody do for me what they've done for me."

Still, he faced one enormous hurdle: Because he had previously been convicted of a bank robbery, his marijuana charges could bring several years in prison. His public defender offered some hope; because Maltese was in life-skills classes, worked with mentors and was being subjected to drug tests, a plea deal and a sentence of under six months was possible.

But he feared his ex-girlfriend would not understand. "She will say, 'You say you're doing great, but look now, you're back in prison," he fretted.

During the long stretches of waiting for the lawyers and judge to be ready to deal with his case, Maltese and his supporters huddled in the court hallway, clasped hands and prayed.

Micah Khan took an assistant prosecutor aside to make the case for Maltese.

"I told her that the Jack Maltese you see today isn't the Jack Maltese you see in your files," he explained.

Finally, he pleaded guilty to a lesser drug possession charge and received a sentence calling for three years of probation and a work program, but no jail time.

Then he blew it. He didn't show up for his work program, and went to jail for more than four months.

By spring, he was living in a halfway house.

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While there were no children in Tent City, several people living there had young children with relatives or in foster homes. Kristin Burk was one of them, and she longed to have her children back.

Burk says she's lived most of her life around addicts, including Marcus Rushworth, the man who would become her second husband.

She didn't use drugs, she said, but her life was still a mess.

Almost five years ago, she was in such a deep depression that she barely functioned. The state Division of Youth and Family Services took her three daughters from her. When the fourth, Faith, was born in December 2008, she was taken from Burk in the hospital.

Burk, 35, says she coped with the loss by using heroin. Rushworth, 37, relapsed but still managed to work nearly daily in construction.

Within months, they were homeless. Without rent to worry about, they could buy drugs with nearly all the money Rushworth made.

For Burk, being homeless eased the pain of being separated from her daughters. "It wasn't like they were keeping my kids with me" then, she said — she was homeless, living at Tent City, and had nowhere to keep them.

Around April of last year, Burk learned she was pregnant again. When the bus arrived, she and Rushworth got on.

Rushworth immediately began a mental health program. Both took methadone to control their addictions. They moved into an apartment in Pennsauken. Adorned with their old stuff, new purchases and donations from family — framed prints of Ansel Adams photos, religious posters, a collection of DVDs and video games, a flat-screen TV — it looked like a home.

Still, Burk used heroin several times during her pregnancy.

On Nov. 5, the baby with bright blue eyes was born. They named her Hope.

A few days later, Burk was on her way back from church and got a call: Youth and Family Service caseworkers had learned that Kristin had a baby. The authorities were looking for mother and child.

They went on the run, crashing with friends and relatives. But before the week was out, case workers tracked them down and took Hope.

She's since been placed in a foster family — the pastor of Kristin's church.

The couple have dedicated their lives to getting back Hope and Kristin's other daughters — particularly the oldest, 15-year-old Annastasia, who is living in a foster home. On New Year's Day, they married. They took in a mutt named Roxy.

Kristin has gotten psychiatric help and is on medications to control bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. They have stayed on their methadone program and passed drug test after drug test.

And Kristin goes to church several times a week, for spiritual purposes — and because that's a place where she can hold her baby.

Earlier this year, she and Marcus moved into a bigger apartment in a half-block from a playground in Pennsauken. They pay the $740 rent with the roughly $1,500 a month they get from Social Security disability payments.

There's a crib in the corner, always empty, though one afternoon a week Annastasia and Hope come for visits supervised by a case worker. The Rushworths hoped to bring Hope home, at least for unsupervised weekend visits, after a March court hearing.

A judge said no. Now, they're hoping to get both daughters home in June.

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Relatively few in the Tent City diaspora went straight to housing and have kept it. Many residents, flush with their first Social Security payments on June 1, bought drugs. Some who refused treatment were kicked out. Others left on their own.

Geano Ortis, a beefy cook laid off from a job in a corporate kitchen for the military contractor Lockheed Martin, said the Kahns failed to deliver on promises that they would pay for housing and clothing. A trip to a second-hand store for clothes also bothered him. "I was wearing Versace shirts and snakeskins because I worked a government job," he said.

He said the rules were so restrictive that his girlfriend, Clara Biggs, had to go to Nehemiah Group staff to get her heart medication — and once had to wait hours for it.

He said that after he left the hotel where the Khans were putting up the Tent City folks, he stayed for a time with friends, then slept on the banks of the Delaware River. Eventually, he moved to a new tent city several blocks from the old one, dubbed Backwoods. Ortis was the mayor.

But the heavy snow and other hardships were wearing, and residents moved out — including, finally, Ortis and Biggs. By April, they had their own place. And by then, she was pregnant (she later miscarried). Ortis, meanwhile, had a new plan: getting a culinary school certification.

Given such convoluted stories, it is not surprising that the Khans have been unable to keep track of all those they took out of Tent City.

Two got jobs as outreach workers helping the homeless. A woman who started college stopped showing up. Some have been to jail — including one ex-Tent City resident accused of stabbing another. One pregnant woman had a miscarriage. One man reconciled with his wife and is living with her again. A few women have been spotted at places where prostitutes look for dates. A man who quickly had his commercial driver's license reinstated has cycled through several truck driving jobs, but has not been able to stay. One man, spotted intoxicated on the street at midday, is working on a book about the mistakes Kahn made.

But Kahn does not believe New Life failed. Perhaps, he said, he's helped even the folks who returned to the streets.

"If anything," he said. "I would hope they have a little taste of what life should be like."