Because surrounding counties provide fewer services for the homeless, especially those with criminal records and addictions, many come to Camden for free meals at a soup kitchen, beds when shelters are not filled to capacity, and public transportation.
A Deptford woman, living in the "backwoods" for more than a year, said the recent bulldozing felt like a warning that demolition was next for the tents, used by a handful of people at her campsite.
Gino Lewis, director of community development in Camden County, said local authorities met Tuesday with officials from the New Jersey Department of Transportation, which owns the land where most of the homeless live. There is a plan to clean homeless sites throughout the city, but not a schedule.
"For me, it was the worst winter of my lifetime," Lewis said. Snow removal and road maintenance took priority over clearing debris dumped on public property. Normally, Lewis said, trash is picked up monthly. Authorities now must address months of accumulation. Lewis said he was not sure how soon spring cleaning would happen.
Illegally dumped construction material is piled high, with discarded wood and drywall. A collection of doors has been placed on the ground to provide a path through mud.
"They're going to move us out of here," said Javier Nunez, 48, who lives under a tarp. He lost his job in a Burlington County factory about three years ago and came to the "backwoods," where about eight others live.
"This is going to be a wipeout," Nunez said.
"I ended up homeless over there," Nunez said of Burlington County. "But they don't want homeless around. They put you in jail."
Wednesday evening, Chris Copeland stopped by with hamburgers. Copeland volunteered at New Visions, a day shelter in Camden, and continues to help homeless people with food, supplies, or paying for motels.
"I've been a Christian for four years, and that has profoundly affected me," Copeland said. "We're supposed to help our fellow brothers and sisters."
Other volunteers said they had assured the homeless that their cats, including two litters of kittens, would be given veterinary treatment and placed in safe homes.
Lewis said that before workers start clearing debris, squatters would be notified. It has not been decided that the tents will be removed, he said.
"Right now everything's on the table," Lewis said. "But we are looking at what's best for the residents."
No one, he said, will be forced out without another place to go. Officials, he said, will be working with Volunteers of America, which operates several shelters in the area.
"We'll continue our work with the homeless as we always have," said Rebecca Fuller, a spokeswoman for the VOA of Delaware Valley.