There are rules. There is a mayor. And residents say they look after each other, like in any community.
A 26-year-old pregnant woman with fresh stitches near her black eye cries herself to sleep each night. She's comforted by her Backwoods neighbors, who act as counselors. Those designated as security guards look out for the return of the woman's ex-boyfriend, who she says beat her.
"I'd rather be in a home, but this is close," said Courtney Offenbacker, 26, formerly of Williamstown, who takes methadone for her heroin addiction and vitamins for her pregnancy.
"I screwed up in my life, and I just want my family to forgive me," she said.
The unofficial mayor of Backwoods, Geano Ortis, decides who stays and who goes. Ortis lived in Tent City - situated downtown, inside the Route 676 jughandle - when Pastor Amir Khan, of the nonprofit Nehemiah Group and Clementon's Solid Rock Worship Center, promised to save its residents.
Three or four others in Backwoods also were among Khan's transplants.
With $250,000 culled from donations and his personal fortune, Khan publicly vowed to pay for the Tent City group's housing and other services for a year.
That was a ruse, Ortis said.
"They made empty promises and then kicked us out, back on the street," he said.
Ortis says he was forced back to Camden after admitting he smoked pot. Khan says Ortis left voluntarily after testing positive for cocaine.
"They're taking the truth and twisting it," Khan said of those who have complained. "They think you're going to throw money at them without any sort of transformation."
Substance abuse was an issue for many in the program. Several said they were shocked when Khan made them sign sobriety contracts and submit to mandatory drug tests. Khan said they knew the rules up front.
"Sobriety's a process," said Marcus Rushworth, who has transitioned into publicly subsidized housing in Pennsauken. "That's hard if you're getting high 10 years of your life, [then] pulled out of your environment and told to get clean."
Ninety percent of the displaced Tent City residents - mostly men, ranging in age from their early 20s to mid-60s - had serious addictions, Rushworth estimated. While the Nehemiah Group offered classes on topics such as money management, he said there weren't enough addiction services.
The morning after the residents arrived, nearly everyone was "dope sick," Rushworth said.
"I felt bad for them," he said of Khan and his workers. "They really didn't know what they were getting into."
Gina Williams Deas is chief operating officer of Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, which works with some of the estimated 1,900 adults and children who are homeless in Camden County in the course of a year.
Khan and his team, Deas said, "were just a little naive" about how hard their task would be.
"The reason [the homeless] were out there was they were involved in activities that didn't lend themselves to structured programs, and they weren't easily going to give that up," she said.
Still, Deas said, Khan "created an opportunity" to taste sobriety and normalcy again, and that worked for some.
"Their hearts were in the right place," said Rushworth, whom the Nehemiah Group helped get housing.
Mike Hagerthey, a Tent City transplant who now has a furnished Lindenwold apartment and a car, agreed.
"If you work and try to understand what they're doing for you, then you're going to make it," he said.
But some who are back on the street, even a few in housing supplied by the Nehemiah Group, say they were lied to.
Rules changed all the time, they said, and they question where the donated money went. They complained that attendance at Khan's church was mandatory.
Khan said those at the hotel had to go to church because he promised hotel management they wouldn't be left unsupervised. As for the money, Khan said, an accounting of the Nehemiah Group's financials will soon go online.
So far, he said, about $135,000 has been spent, mostly on hotels, food, commuting to substance-abuse centers and welfare offices, clothes at Wal-Mart, and salaries for part-time mentors.
About $60,000 was from donations, $30,000 was paid for by his church, and the rest was out of his pocket, he said.
The only major rule change during their stay, Khan said, was an attempt to get residents to save by offering to hold their welfare money temporarily and matching what they banked by 50 percent. The plan didn't work, he said.
Khan said he tried to change their "entitlement mentality" and teach fiscal discipline after he saw residents spend their welfare checks on new cell phones. The government hands out money without mentorship or guidance, he said.
"You're taking $1,000 a month and putting it in the hands of drug users, the mentally ill," he said. Observing the program participants "exposed what the issue was."
Khan's plan to save Tent City residents changed several times in the beginning, and that triggered complaints.
At first, the homeless were told, they would go to the hotel for a night and receive a "spa treatment." But there were none of the promised manicures, facials, and massages, only haircuts and donated clothing.
Khan next planned to take them to a facility in Bridgeton for three weeks, but officials there blocked the move. Residents bounced among four suburban South Jersey hotels through July, with the Nehemiah Group providing food - funded in part by a Camden soup kitchen - and linking them with social services.
Nineteen of the 54 have been kicked out of the program for disciplinary reasons, including drug use, violence, and prostitution, according to the Nehemiah Group.
Today, Khan's staff can account for all but 11 of the original participants. Three are in jail, including a 60-year-old man who stabbed a 25-year-old in the chest over a $15 loan and nearly killed him.
Sixteen are in public housing, and five are staying at two Nehemiah Group facilities. Nineteen are with friends and family or in shelters or drug rehab facilities.
Though some are angry with the pastor for not paying for everyone's housing for a year, Khan said he got them into the welfare system and subsidized housing. He plans to continue to assist them when the year is up, and he recently placed other homeless people in facilities the group rents and owns.
"We're not going to take the glory, but . . . give credit where credit was due," he said. "I won't be able to salvage, save, everybody."
Khan has other plans to address the homelessness problem. He has formed a coalition of social service agencies, the Greater Camden County Renaissance Group, with an online database for those in need of assistance.
The need is obvious. After Tent City was razed, the state Department of Transportation fenced off the location.
Homeless encampments then began to form under the maze of overpasses on nearby Admiral Wilson Boulevard. In the last two weeks, the state has spent about $45,000 to seal off the areas, according to authorities.
Some who had gone there were pushed into the Backwoods encampment, which is not visible from the road. Camden County believes the area is owned, in part, by NJ Transit.
Advocates for the homeless say they would like to see less focus on herding people and more on addressing substance abuse, mental illness, and the lack of affordable housing, issues that can lead to living on the street.
"We should be working together to figure out the best way to utilize the money we have available," said Allison Recca-Ryan, president of the New Jersey Advocacy Network to End Homelessness.
She said Camden County freeholders should follow the lead of more than a half-dozen New Jersey counties and create a Homeless Trust Fund, which would pay for housing and other programs via a $3 fee on documents recorded by county officials.
The freeholders have said they were "keenly aware" of the homeless problem, but called the fee the equivalent of a tax. County officials would prefer to distribute federal, state, and county money for programs and services, they said this spring.
Contact staff writer Matt Katz
at 856-779-3919 or email@example.com.