LAKEWOOD, N.J., Feb. 8 â€” The minister pulled his large blue bus into a parking lot a half-mile from Exit 82 on the Garden State Parkway, behind a Boaterâ€™s World and a McDonaldâ€™s. Stepping out, he plunged into the frozen backwoods, where he came upon several tents zipped up tight against the frigid wind.
In the back of the bus, the minister carried bulging gray metal cans filled with gallons of relief. For the homeless who have settled here, by mucky streams or in thickets of scrub pine, in sight of cellphone towers and gas stations but on the edges of survival, his gift of propane is all that prevents them from falling off.
The propane is little salve for most of their problems, like the loneliness and the boredom, the mental disorders and the substance abuse. Yet when the minister, Steven A. Brigham, called out, â€œAre you home?â€ a tent flap quickly unzipped to reveal a man with a teardrop tattoo next to one eye.
â€œI need propane,â€ said the man, Brett Bartholomew, after they caught up for a minute. â€œIâ€™m down to my last two tanks. Iâ€™m using them now.â€
It is a ritual Mr. Brigham performs several times a week â€” more when the temperature drops â€” in a kind of propane ministry he has built since 2003 that now serves 44 homeless men and women scattered in nine encampments in the Ocean County communities of Lakewood and two neighboring towns on the Jersey Shore.
Advocates for the homeless say there is only one menâ€™s shelter with a few beds in Ocean County, which has a population of about 550,000, plus other places for children and victims of domestic violence. The county government also rents rooms in motels for hundreds of homeless people. A census in 2005 found 556 local homeless, 41 of them who have been unable to find any emergency housing; advocates say that number has grown, though a count conducted in January has not yet been released.
They live outside without plumbing or electricity, save a generator or two. So they count on Minister Steve, as Mr. Brigham calls himself, for propane to power their heaters and stoves â€” which he also supplied â€” to fill the tents he gave them with enough warmth to sleep. To survive.
The propane, in 20-pound metal jugs Mr. Brigham fills at gas stations, costs about $2,000 a month; some of the propane is provided by a pantry, and the rest is subsidized by donations. He runs through about 40 tanks a week in winter.
In the bracing cold that draped the Northeast last week, Minister Steve went about his work urgently, his already long days crammed with crucial tasks.
Old mattresses waited to be picked up at a local church, and there were boxes of food to collect from various pantries. Someone staying in a motel needed a razor. In one tent city, a dozen Mexican day laborers, unable to find work in the cold weather, needed more sugar.
In another, Nachelle Walker and Nathaniel Joyner asked for more propane and praised the packaged chili Mr. Brigham had delivered. â€œYou can turn the heat down and eat chili,â€ Ms. Walker said. â€œIt sticks to your insides.â€
â€œI can empathize with these people living out there in the woods the whole night long,â€ said Mr. Brigham, 46, who has done a lot of camping and describes himself as a â€œfree spiritâ€ untethered from traditional society.
A born-again Christian, Minister Steve sleeps in his camper van or in sleeping bags on floors, and earns no salary, having quit his job as a laborer a year ago; like the homeless he serves, he depends on donations and has faced financial difficulties in the past. He is divorced and has a teenage son who he hopes will join him in his work someday.
On Tuesday and Thursday, he was wearing the same clothes: khaki pants, a faded beige cotton button-down shirt, a blazer and a green puffy parka that he never zipped up. No gloves. Asked about his makeshift ministry, Mr. Brigham shrugged and said, â€œThey needed some heat to save them.â€
John Catney, whom Mr. Brigham found shivering on a bench outside a Pathmark supermarket two weeks ago and subsequently put up in a motel, asked the minister simply to rescue him from boredom.
â€œI havenâ€™t hardly talked to anyone in weeks,â€ Mr. Catney said as he left the motel, the Seaside Sands Inn in Seaside Heights, to quietly accompany Mr. Brigham on his rounds.
That was on Thursday. The minister had set out that morning in the blue bus that he converted several years ago into a traveling storeroom and service center for the homeless. A friend with some mechanical skills helped him outfit the bus, an old military beater, with a clothes dryer, a stove and a shower â€” all powered by propane and available for the tent dwellers to use whenever Mr. Brigham stops by.
There are filing cabinets and a desk, a couch and an easy chair. The brakes are starting to fail. The heater does not work. Above the front windshield, where other buses display their destinations, is a sign proclaiming: â€œGod Is Love.â€
As the bus bounced and creaked through the streets of Lakewood, Mr. Brigham remembered a homeless man who died in 2001. â€œEddie Dugan was sleeping under a tarp,â€ he said. â€œHe got frostbite. They had to amputate half his foot.â€ Mr. Dugan took painkillers for the foot, Mr. Brigham said, and chased them with alcohol. He died during the night.
Mr. Brigham knows the names of other homeless men who died sleeping rough, and he knows how they went. Their deaths stalk the minister and power his big blue bus.
After dropping off propane, root beer, batteries and a new gas stove at Mr. Bartholomewâ€™s camp, the minister visited another small tent village, where Charles Errickson and Eleanor Radomski have lived next door to each other for nearly a year, developing a familiar morning routine.
â€œAround 4 a.m., I give Ellie a wake-up call,â€ Mr. Errickson said. The bike ride to the local labor center takes half an hour, and the line forms around 5:30. When there is work, they can make $45 a day. â€œBy 7 or 8, if thereâ€™s no work, we come home,â€ Mr. Errickson said.
He looks after Ms. Radomski. â€œHe knows his way around,â€ she said. â€œI get lost.â€
The minister had brought the pair propane the day before. On Thursday, he left bologna sandwiches and cans of food.
On the bus, Mr. Catney sat on a twin bed, and talked about the long road that led him, soaked, to the bench where Mr. Brigham found him.
There was the shelter in New York City where he watched one man beat another with a padlock stuffed inside a sock. There were the failed attempts to reconcile with his family. Finally, there was the bottle of vodka purchased with the quarters left for shopping cart deposits. And then, the bench.
â€œIn order to sleep in the cold, I have to get drunk,â€ he said.
Nor was he ready to set up in a tent off the turnpike. â€œIâ€™ve never seen that,â€ Mr. Catney said. â€œItâ€™s pretty scary.â€
Curtains cover the windows of the bus, trimmed at the bottoms with images of a beach cottage and a lighthouse. They let in a soft white light.
The minister drove the bus to a local college to speak with students in a social justice class who are interested in starting a homeless shelter. They asked about the culture of the homeless, and the conditions in the shelters. Mr. Catney listened for a while, then left to look for a cigarette, saying, â€œIt was awkward.â€
Mr. Brigham describes a number of conditions that led to the creation of the camps, like a crackdown on overcrowded immigrant housing, a shortage of affordable apartments and a lack of homeless shelters.
Mary Fran McFadden, the social work administrator for the Ocean County Board of Social Services, said the county placed hundreds of people in temporary housing â€” mostly motels â€” every month.
â€œThere are millions of dollars going to assist these people,â€ she said.
â€œIt would be nice if we could stop everything today, and we could make 2,000 or 3,000 units of housing available to people who are homeless,â€ she added.
Until then, Mr. Brigham, who began working with the homeless six years ago, will still be badly needed.
Mr. Brigham, who started working with the homeless six years ago, gave the Mexicans a communal tent, where they sit together and eat meals they make in a giant turkey cooker. A dozen yards away, through littered undergrowth, there is a shantytown of black residents, who have lived in the wilderness for years.
The four people who live under the power lines are white. Ronnie Banks, who is black, used to live there, but after being taunted with a racial epithet, he moved to Mr. Bartholomewâ€™s camp.
Mr. Banks, a recovering addict, said he had served time in prison for dealing drugs. His tent is, in the ramshackle, patchwork world of the camps, nearly spotless. There are teddy bears on his bed and pink carnations next to it. He said he was close with his 13 children; one daughter works just down the road. His tent sits alone, at the opposite end of a rise that allows him and Mr. Bartholomew to watch over the path that leads to their homes.
The woods around them are filled with trash. Residents of the homes nearby complain about their presence. â€œThis is the safest place for me right now,â€ Mr. Banks said.
About 5 p.m., Mr. Brigham made a mental list of the dayâ€™s remaining chores. Mr. Catney had to get home. Another man had asked for a $40 loan to pay a fine.
Mr. Brigham got back on his blue bus, with so much left to do.