Who Knew One Could Even Try Such a Thing?

Prose

New Brunswick, New Jersey in the 1980s was a pretty good microcosm of America. It was a multi-ethnic city with pockets of both wealth and poverty. It hosted the state’s major public university, Rutgers. It was the hometown of the transnational medical goods corporation, Johnson & Johnson, which was then the largest U.S.-based company that stubbornly refused to divest from apartheid South Africa, and which had built its international headquarters in New Brunswick on land where a number of affordable apartment buildings once stood. And it was run by an archetypal American political machine, headed at the time by Mayor John Lynch, whose father had been the city’s mayor before him. A bridge leading into New Brunswick was even named after Mayor Lynch’s father.

On the flip side of the coin, the city also had thriving cultural and activist scenes in those years, with three or four spirited live music venues (now all gone except for one), and a number of energetic activist groups, from a peace coalition to a local chapter of the Ralph Nader-founded Public Interest Research Group, from a dynamic Rutgers student movement to an inventive and extremely effective New Jersey Anti-Apartheid Mobilization Coalition, chaired by Valorie Caffee, one of the most talented political organizers that I have ever met. With the Johnson & Johnson Corporation sitting conspicuously right in the center of town, there was always an obvious symbolic target for our protests against the increasing institutional racism and economic inequality at home and abroad. I would like to think that our visible and regular protests in front of J&J’s headquarters played at least some small role in the international pressure that helped to speed the release from prison of Nelson Mandela and the subsequent downfall of apartheid in South Africa. When Mandela came to the U.S. for the first time to speak at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx shortly after his 1990 release, our anti-apartheid group sent over a dozen buses filled with people of all ages determined to join the overflowing audience of cheering activists at The House That Ruth Built.

As a result of a 1987 law passed by Congress, called the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, nonprofit groups serving homeless people were newly allowed to apply for surplus federal land to build housing for the homeless.

Two of my closest New Brunswick friends, a then-couple, Janet Jones and Bob Nasdor, had, by the mid to late 1980s, become, through their personal dedication and political imagination, the main advocates for the city’s homeless. Longtime Central Jersey peace activists, in the mid-1980s, they began turning their attention towards helping New Brunswick’s homeless individuals and families by serving dinners every night out of the back of their station wagon in the city’s small theater district. By virtue of this simple selfless act repeated every single evening, the city’s mayor had announced that Bob and Janet were on his official enemies list.

When Mayor Lynch later tried to close the city’s only homeless men’s shelter, run by Catholic Charities, in order to turn it into a “transportation museum,” apparently intended to house the town’s old trains and buses, Bob and Janet began organizing civil disobedience protests to keep the shelter open. The protests were designed as actions that were clearly legal and protected by the First Amendment right to free speech and assembly. But we nonetheless had reason to believe that the city was going to overreact and make arrests at these protests, because Mayor Lynch was determined at the time to drive New Brunswick’s homeless to other towns in order to try hiding the fact that his corporate-friendly, local Democratic Party redevelopment priorities, along with Ronald Reagan’s national Republican economic policies, were responsible for causing a dramatic increase in the city’s poor and homeless population.
My first in-depth involvement with Bob and Janet’s homeless advocacy work had been to get arrested in 1986 on the lawn of New Brunswick city hall with six other young people, all of us holding up signs to keep the homeless shelter open. Just before the police arrested seven of us that night, three men and four women, an officer announced shockingly: “If you don’t leave within ten minutes, you will be arrested and the women will be strip-searched.” Indeed, later that night, with all of us in our respective holding cells, the men and women in separate sections of the city’s prison, the four young women who had been arrested did get strip-searched by a police woman for no justifiable reason, with the search possibly even being videotaped and shown in another room, a story which later made the national TV news largely because one of the young women who was strip-searched was the daughter of a popular local pastor. As one New York television news story put it: “He is a reverend in New Brunswick, New Jersey. His daughter was strip-searched by the New Brunswick police department, and he is mad as hell.”

In order to avoid having New Brunswick’s political-machine-friendly judge ruling on our actions, our court case was set up at our request on a Saturday afternoon a few months later in the next-door-neighboring town of Highland Park, along with three other similar cases of arrests that were made during the weeklong series of shelter-related protests. In court, the police department had to put a low-level officer on the stand to testify against us, because the director of the city’s police department, who would normally have been the one to testify for the city, was then under indictment and could have been asked about the outstanding charges against him if he had taken the stand. (After serving as mayor for 12 years, John Lynch himself would later go on to serve three years in jail on corruption charges.) When our lawyer asked the low-ranking police officer on the stand why we seven defendants had been arrested, the cop said that we were sitting down in a place where we were not supposed to be.

“Why weren’t they supposed to be there?” our lawyer, with the same unforgettable name as the playwright, Arthur Miller, asked.

“Because it’s not their property.”

“Whose property is it?” Arthur asked, in his most curious-sounding and dramatic follow-up voice.

“It’s M……..” Everyone in the place knew very well that the officer on the stand was about to tell the judge, under oath, in a packed courtroom, that New Brunswick’s City Hall lawn belonged to Mayor John Lynch, but the cop managed to stop himself just in time, and then remained silent for about 30 seconds. To this day, that half-minute remains one of the most awkward silences that I have ever seen. Eventually, the officer realized that he had better shift course and he finished his sentence, “I guess the lawn of City Hall belongs to the people of New Brunswick.”

“Thank you, that is all the questions I have for this witness,” Arthur Miller replied.

It was only a few minutes later that the judge pronounced us, in a clear and deep voice, “not guilty.” In fact, all those who were arrested in the weeklong series of protests to keep the homeless shelter open were found not guilty that Saturday in the Highland Park courtroom. And a few weeks later, after additional voices were raised by national housing advocates, including Washington, D.C.’s Mitch Snyder, the city relented and announced that it would let the homeless shelter stay open. It was a clear victory for fighting city hall with creative local protest. Then, a few months further down the road, after we filed a civil suit for illegal arrests, the city moreover agreed never to put people in jail again for holding perfectly legal demonstrations on its public property. The city paid a number of us $500 each for putting us in jail for a few hours in violation of state prohibitions against such illegal arrests, and it paid the women who were strip-searched $20,000 each, promising in especially strong terms never to do that again.

Along with serving nightly dinners from the back of their station wagon, Janet and Bob began organizing more protests to force the city of New Brunswick and the county of Middlesex to provide more services for homeless and at-risk individuals and families. I joined them for a night or two of camping out overnight in large cardboard refrigerator boxes in front of the county’s government offices.

After the 1987 McKinney Homeless Assistance Act was passed, the national housing advocate Mitch Snyder and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty asked Bob and Janet—along with the group they had recently created, Middlesex Interfaith Partners with the Homeless (MIPH)—to join in a class action lawsuit to get the government to turn over some land, since even after the passage of the McKinney Act, the responsible federal agencies had yet to yield surplus land to even a single homeless advocacy group anywhere in the U.S. When Janet was called into a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) office after the lawsuit was filed, she guessed that she was going to be yelled at, assuming that the government was never going to voluntarily give a large parcel of land to activists who had been embarrassing public officials by camping out in cardboard boxes to protest a shortage of helpful housing policies.

Instead of being yelled at, Janet was offered a large settlement to drop the lawsuit—three acres of land on an old, unused federal golf course in Edison, New Jersey. On these three acres, MIPH then built a transitional housing program for homeless families, the first program in the country created on land acquired under the McKinney Act. The idea of transitional housing was to give homeless families up to a year of quality temporary housing, along with case-worker help in finding appropriate education, job training, or jobs that would hopefully enhance the likelihood of the family’s being able to maintain permanent housing after graduating from the program.

When Janet and Bob received the land offer, they called me up and asked me if I would run a MIPH Homeless Outreach Center in New Brunswick which they had been staffing, so that they could spend their time planning the new project in Edison, which was quite a big job, entailing the building of a brand new housing complex that would contain 30 apartments for single-parent homeless families, along with space for an on-site day care center and large side rooms in which to hold education classes. As an atheist running MIPH’s interfaith Outreach Center, I helped to coordinate a wide-ranging network of religious and secular organizations that offered resources to low-income folks in need of shelter space, food, health care, or just a place to stay out of the rain or cold for a day. About 30 or 40 people would come into my office every day, and I advocated with city and county welfare offices on their behalf, referred people who needed legal help to our local Legal Services office, and referred other individuals and families to local health clinics and food pantries. I also helped to coordinate a rotating emergency shelter and soup kitchen, hosted by a number of churches and synagogues in New Brunswick. This was both the toughest and the most rewarding job that I had ever done—rewarding for all the people in need that I was able to help, and tough because there were some dangerous moments and some nights of terrible waking dreams of mothers with young children wandering dangerous midnight streets with no shelter beds available anywhere in town that evening.

When Amandla Crossing Transitional Housing opened up on the old Edison golf course, we closed our smaller New Brunswick outreach center, and I became Amandla Crossing’s Housing Relocation Coordinator—mainly responsible for helping homeless families find permanent housing after about a year’s stay in our program, and also a kind of freelance housing and welfare rights activist, helping to organize public demonstrations and working with Legal Services lawyers and a diverse group of New Jersey activists to create a statewide advocacy group called Solutions to End Poverty (STEPS). Among other accomplishments, through a wide-ranging campaign that included well-attended demonstrations in front of city halls, statewide press conferences, and a carpool “caravan of concern” to talk in person in their offices with legislators who seemed to be on the fence about the law, STEPS succeeded one year in the early 1990s in forcing the state legislature to reverse a mean-spirited bill that it had recently passed which would have pushed over 10,000 homeless men and women out of shelters and onto the streets on New Year’s Day.

After Amandla Crossing Transitional Housing was up and running for a few years, Janet and Bob, along with MIPH’s board, chaired by a wonderful progressive pastor named Jeff Eaton, decided that MIPH should try to take another piece of surplus federal land to build a second major transitional housing program in the region. There was an old Army base in Edison, New Jersey that didn’t seem to be being used, and, as longtime peace activists, Bob and Janet thought it would be especially nice karma to convert old military property into housing for the homeless. A Base Closure Act had followed on the heels of the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, and land like Edison’s Camp Kilmer was supposed to be placed on the surplus list for groups like MIPH to apply. Bob made a round of phone calls and one lower-level Army officer told Bob that large parts of Camp Kilmer were indeed not being used and should be considered surplus property. A higher-level officer then told Bob that the first guy wasn’t supposed to tell Bob that, which only served to confirm Bob’s belief that the land was indeed surplus—increasing his resolve and turning his creative juices loose.

Bob somehow came up with the idea to pay a helicopter photographer to hover over Camp Kilmer every week for a few months in order to take a series of photos. The photos showed several large empty flatbed trucks that never moved an inch from one week to the next. Bob then blew up these pictures to a giant size and started bringing them to every HUD meeting that he could possibly attend as a way to embarrass the federal government into putting Camp Kilmer on the official surplus list, from which non-profit housing advocates could then apply to take the land away in order to create housing programs.

Who knew that a helicopter would be allowed to hover over an Army base every week without being shot down? Who knew that you could pay a helicopter photographer to even try such a thing? How many other people would have thought of doing that?

When the Army finally did put Camp Kilmer on the surplus list, I took over the job of actually getting the land for Middlesex Interfaith Partners with the Homeless. It seemed like an especially appropriate project for me, since this was an Army camp named after the Central Jersey soldier-poet, Joyce Kilmer, famous for his poem, “Trees,” who had been killed in the field during World War I. Even after Bob had shamed the government into putting Camp Kilmer on the surplus list, the government still threw up a hundred more bureaucratic obstacles that I had to overcome. But I managed to fill out all the right applications, push through all the resistant bureaucrats, and obtain ten acres of land at Camp Kilmer for MIPH. I also managed to get HUD to promise several million dollars toward construction costs for the future apartment complex. When I moved from New Brunswick to New York City in the late 1990s, MIPH (which has since been renamed Making It Possible to End Homelessness, keeping the old acronym) was still working to secure program-operating funds from the state, and to get approved building permits from the city and county. Several years later, a beautiful building and program was opened, called Imani Park, a transitional housing program for homeless individuals or families with HIV or AIDS.

It is always a struggle to get these kinds of programs built, to keep them going, and to get the additional resources needed to make sure they are really able to help get people out of homelessness and into permanent housing. But over ten years later, the program is still going strong, a beautiful lasting work of art, made of brick and mortar, legwork and imagination.

2013