Authorities started advising Camden's homeless after the winter's end that they needed to move out of tents in at least four encampments across the city, most near I-676.
Dozens of people have been put in shelters in recent weeks. Tuesday, the Camden County Health Department began sifting through debris at "the bowl," collecting enough hypodermic needles to fill a five-gallon bucket, said county spokesman Dan Keashan.
Workers also began cutting trees. Plans included chopping down mature maple and pine trees where underbrush partly hid tent communities, Keashan said.
"Our goal is to get everybody out of sleeping bags and into beds," Keashan said, adding that social services would be available. "There are a lot of people with significant addictions, mental health problems, and behavioral health issues."
Local, county, and state officials worked together on plans to clear debris that accumulated throughout the winter. The city's most visible encampments are in the "back woods," off the Admiral Wilson Boulevard. Authorities expected to start clearing the area Wednesday morning.
Tuesday, Howe and Nance sheltered their cat, Skittles, in a duffel bag. Their other cat, a very pregnant Oreo, purred nearby. The couple agreed to allow a county humane officer, Crystal Fletcher, to take the cats to an animal shelter and place them with foster homes.
"They're part of our family," Howe said. "We want them back."
Howe said he had lived in Riverside and ran a trucking business that closed because of the economy. Nance, of Blackwood, struggles with addiction, and Howe said he takes care of her.
Gino Lewis, the county's director of community development, said finding shelter for unmarried couples was problematic. The couple, he said, could sleep in separate shelters overnight and meet in the morning.
"We did offer, and the offer still stands," Lewis said. "They can't sleep together."
The city, Lewis said, has struggled with homeless populations for decades. He hopes most people will move to permanent housing, but he said he realizes there are many who may return.
"Never say never," Lewis said. "Will we totally eradicate it? Let's see, how long has man lived in caves?"
Camden has one of the largest homeless populations in South Jersey, partly because there are several shelters and a soup kitchen. A homeless count conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2013 showed 71 chronically homeless people and 598 homeless in Camden County, the majority in Camden.
Also, Lewis said, addicts can easily buy drugs in Camden.
"I probably shouldn't say this," Lewis said, hesitating, then adding: "It's the availability of open-air markets."
As workers started clearing the encampments, more of the homeless were seen on the streets, some with shopping carts filled with belongings.
Wayne Peters, 53, said he was from Camden. He said he had been living on the streets in recent weeks after he finished two years in prison for burglary. Upon release, he was given $30 and a bus ticket to Camden.
"There's no place to go," Peters said, squinting in the sun as Lewis and Keashan promised to help.
"Are you packed and ready to go?" Lewis asked. Peters lifted his empty hands and said he was wearing all his possessions. Lewis arranged transportation to get him to an Atlantic Avenue shelter run by Volunteers of America.
Rebecca Fuller, spokeswoman for the VOA of Delaware Valley, said beds were kept open for Tuesday as authorities dismantled tents.
"We're always trying to get people to come inside," Fuller said. "We're not doing anything we don't typically do."