Tough times for former residents of Camden's Tent City

Former residents of Tent City , Jessica Mussa (right) greets Ronnie Williams at Frank's Place, a Camden shelter.
Former residents of Tent City , Jessica Mussa (right) greets Ronnie Williams at Frank's Place, a Camden shelter.
Posted: June 12, 2010

A month after Ronnie Williams left his tent under a Camden overpass for an air-conditioned room in a Cherry Hill hotel, he is back on the streets of Camden.

"I couldn't deal with the checking in and out. Just to go across the street, you had to get permission," Williams, 53, said Wednesday. "I had more freedom in prison."

Williams and more than 50 others left the informal settlement of homeless people known as Tent City in early May and were eventually placed in the Inn of Cherry Hill Hotel, thanks to the nonprofit Nehemiah Group.

The charity, affiliated with the Solid Rock Worship Center in Clementon, aimed to turn around the lives of the Tent City residents, offering help that included group therapy, personal finance classes, methadone - for those who needed it - and religious instruction.

This week, from 30 to 35 Tent City residents remain in the hotel. While there have been successes, with one man placed in his own apartment in East Camden, others have returned to their old lives. Some were asked to leave after failing drug tests, while others simply stepped out and never returned.

Micah Khan, the 30-year-old director of Nehemiah Group, said many of those who left had entered drug-treatment programs and would be free to return if they stayed clean for 30 days. For those who hadn't, he said he was still working on them.

"You do drugs for 10, 15 years, for us to think you're just going to stop, we believe in miracles, but there are those who need extra attention," Khan said.

Tent City had long been a sore spot for Camden social services, and years after its creation there seemed no government solution on the horizon. The Nehemiah Group's move caught many off guard, but the group's efforts have been largely well received.

Alison Recca-Ryan, president of the New Jersey Advocacy Network to End Homelessness, who had been working at Tent City for years, visited the residents at the hotel this week and said she was satisfied with the progress they were making.

"It seems like they have a good operation. And they've only been there a month," she said. "You have to remember, these are people who have not had their own place to live. These are people who find it difficult to adjust to living in a building, having a door shut behind them."

The Nehemiah Group was founded a decade ago by Amir Kahn, a prominent businessman and the pastor of Solid Rock. He is the son of the late Mustifa Khan, a Trinidadian doctor whose practice served Camden's poor for decades.

Originally founded as the charitable wing of the church, the organization now works primarily on transitioning prisoners back into society and is run by Micah Khan, Amir's son, a former wrestler at West Virginia University who dropped out of school and later ran afoul of the law.

After being arrested for selling cocaine in 2004, Micah Khan spent two years in prison and says he came out a changed man. But his criminal record made finding work nearly impossible and when county sheriffs turned up at his father's door asking about Micah's overdue child-support payments, Amir Khan said, he decided to give his son a job.

"We made a deal that certain things like child support and fines would come straight out of his paycheck. I'm doing the same with the Tent City residents [for their welfare checks] as I did with my own son," Amir Khan said.

The Khans' plan of putting homeless people in a hotel and demanding they conform to schedules and stay clean is not without its detractors.

Ed Holfelner, a nurse who used to visit Tent City to provide medical care, said most of the residents should have gone straight into drug rehabilitation facilities and need to be under professional care.

"What [the Khans] are doing seems superficial, instead of dealing with the real problems," he said. "Bringing volunteers in is all well and good, but they're not qualified to deal with mental health and drug issues."

Holfelner had planned to put the Tent City residents into housing through a small company he owns. Those plans were scuttled by the entrance of the Khans' charity.

Amir Khan defended his decision to place his son, who has no formal training in social work, in charge of the program, as a matter of life experience over education.

"Maybe we've got too many people with too many degrees having too many meetings," he said. "Nothing's happened there for so long because it takes passion, not degrees."

The Khans plan to spend $250,000 on the program during the next year, which will be generated from a combination of donations from Solid Rock parishioners and Amir Khan's business contacts and personal funds, the pastor said.

For many of Tent City's former residents, the Khans' efforts have proved a lifeline back to their lives before homelessness.

In the hotel lobby on Wednesday, Angie Bagley, 28, who said she has been addicted to heroin for 10 years and had spent more than a year living under the overpass, was scanning through apartment listings online and trying to decide between interior design and marine biology classes when she enrolls in college in the fall.

Mike, a 53-year-old truck driver who would not give his last name as he seeks employment, was talking to trucking companies after being out of work almost two years. A bad divorce and a loss of income put him on the streets, leading to an eight-month stay at Tent City, during which he lost three toes to frostbite.

"I had it good once, and I want to get back to that," he said.

The matter of how best to rehabilitate the chronically homeless - most of the nation's homeless population has been on the streets for fewer than 30 days - is one with which social workers and academics continue to grapple, said Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Theories abound on the best methodology, from traditional strategies such as just getting homeless addicts off drugs to a theory that has gained ground in recent years, of placing them in permanent housing first and treating their afflictions later.

"There's a group of people who are homeless who are chronically homeless. They don't succeed in treatment programs. They've tried 20 or 30 times at something that doesn't have a great success rate in the general population," Culhane said. "If we don't get them into housing, we confine them to living on the streets and death on the streets."

For those Tent City residents who have left the hotel, there is resentment. Tent City has now been boarded up, and with Camden homeless shelters prohibiting drug use, most are left to wander the streets, seeking out floors to squat on or bedding down outside in the city's other homeless gathering spots.

Jessica Mussa, 28, said she left the hotel one night last week to shoot heroin and never went back. Standing outside a Camden church that serves a free lunch Wednesday, she said they were placed into a situation in which they were guaranteed to fail.

"We're all addicts. What, did they think that was going to change overnight?" she said angrily.


Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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