In a controversial policy decision, a New Jersey township has opted to cut down the trees in its town square in the hopes of deterring unhoused people from gathering there.
As a result, town policymakers are facing a backlash with many local residents feeling that the policy has backfired.
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Once lined with lush, deciduous trees, Lakewood Township's beloved Red Square now emanates a feeling of emptiness after its trees were hastily stripped from their plots back in early August.
The decision was ultimately set in motion upon recommendation from Lakewood's police department due to an increase in incidences involving homelessness in the area.
The town's unhoused population was known to frequent its square for the shade that its trees provided. However, town mayor Raymond Coles felt something needed to be done after local families began to avoid the area.
Coles has spoken out on the issue accusing the unhoused of using the square as a place to relieve themselves and harass residents.
"I have been told that many residents and employees encountered harassment, catcalling, etc. Some of our female employees said they did not feel safe walking to their cars without a police officer to escort them. Folks were defecating in between cars."
Regarding the new policy, Coles claims that there has been a noticeable impact.
"It seems to have helped alleviate the problem with the town square. Employees seem more comfortable coming and going from work. I had a business owner call me to tell me he has seen a difference."
Yet despite Coles' sentiments, many have come out to criticize the rationale behind the tree removal. Advocates for the unhoused have shown mixed reactions ranging from anger to outright bewilderment. Local town minister Reverend Steve Brigham slammed the move as "extremely, extreme".
The story has trended across social media with many comments suggesting that the decision actually may have accomplished the opposite of what was intended.
One user on Twitter suggested that removing trees makes more room for setting up tents.
Another user suggests the town should provide affordable housing instead.
There was plenty of outrage to go around.
As for the criticism the town has received, Mayor Coles says that he was prepared for it.
"I was aware that the blowback we have seen this week would occur. It would have been easier to just let the situation be, but no problem can ever be solved by ignoring it."
For the unhoused in his town, the mayor suggests that these individuals should go apply for section 8 housing. However, advocates have hit back claiming that many prospective section 8 applicants encounter barriers such as needing an email address or limited housing availability.
Regardless, the mayor believes that many of the unhoused simply refuse to sign up for assistance.
"Many will refuse to sign up for any assistance. There is no way we can force someone to accept our help."
As for the future of the town square, the mayor plans to start a refurbishment program in the Fall featuring new plants and paint. Yet despite the square's upcoming renovations, there appear to be no further initiatives for addressing homelessness in Lakewood Township.