Complicated paths continue after Tent City rescue
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 support and faith, they might flourish.
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 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 making a stop at a detoxification program first.
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.
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 an evangelical church in Camden's suburbs, the Solid Rock Worship Center.
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."
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 found himself smiling.
For the first time in his adult life, he was both free and sober.
But he didn't last long in the apartment. He ended up leaving after complaints about trouble-causing guests.
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."
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 he and Burk 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 were hoping 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.
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.
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, and became 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 Ortis was planning on getting a culinary certification.
Given convoluted stories like Ortis', 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. Another who saw his prison sentence on a drug charge disappear thanks to the help he received, only to end up in jail anyway when he didn't show up for a work program.
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. 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."