FREEHOLD — A small shelter in the woods of neighboring Freehold Township that 10 Hispanic day laborers called home was reported to have been vandalized Jan. 15.
Cecilia Reynolds, a member of the Freehold Borough Human Relations Committee and a confidant of the area’s immigrant population, learned of the problem that morning. Several men who had been to the site to check up on people they believed may have slept there on the night of Jan. 14 came to Reynolds’ office on Main Street to tell her what they had found.
Reynolds said the heavy rubber that covered the sides of the structure was repeatedly slashed by a sharp object.
"What kind of person would do such a thing?" she asked. "This was all they had."
Reynolds said the shelter was intact on the afternoon of Jan. 14 when Freehold Borough police officer Craig Dispenza and Reynolds’ 22-year-old son, Carlos left soup there for anyone who might come back that evening.
Freehold Township police Lt. Robert Brightman said on Jan. 22 that he had no reports of officers from his department being summoned to that area of the township. He had not received any reports of property damage or criminal mischief to any makeshift shelter.
Freehold Borough Police Chief Michael Beierschmitt and Mayor Michael Wilson said the shelter was in Freehold Township.
According to Reynolds, she and Dispenza make periodic trips to "tent city" on the border of the borough and the township to check up on anyone who may be living there.
Reynolds said that two weeks ago Dispenza and her son were checking the woods to see if anyone needed help. They found three men at the location where the small shelter stands and immediately contacted Rita Morena, who heads the advocacy program at Freehold’s Open Door Food Pantry.
Dispenza said Morena "came through for us, like she always does."
Morena arranged for those three men to stay at a hotel in Colts Neck for one week, then extended that shelter for another week.
Jeanne Yaecker, the director of Open Door, said the agency provides housing "within the guidelines of our emergency fund restrictions."
Yaecker said recent media coverage of the immigrants’ plight has resulted in donations from people who have specifically requested that their contributions be used for housing. She said those requests are honored.
Yaecker said there is a definite need for shelter in the borough. She said the housing situation is very difficult for low-income families and noted there is no emergency shelter in the borough.
"How can you justify leaving someone outside in this weather to freeze?" she asked. "It’s a humanitarian effort. I cannot justify leaving anyone outside in this weather. We’re trying to help as much as we can, at least to get through this winter."
There was no immediate word on any of the other men who were known to have lived in the shelter in the woods, according to Reynolds. She said immigrants will sometimes choose not to leave Freehold, even if leaving town would mean sleeping in a warm bed.
"They say it is too difficult to get back to Freehold in the morning. They have to be available very early in the morning in order to be chosen for work," she said. "And the walk from Colts Neck to Freehold is very far in this weather."
She said even though she knew the small shelter in the woods had no right to be there and that the men had no right to be living in it, she nonetheless felt "violated" for them.
"It didn’t look like someone was just destroying a piece of property, but more like someone was trying to let their hate out, over and over again with all those slashes. I regret that anyone could do this to what appeared to be someone’s home," Reynolds said, adding that many of the workers feel that life has given up on them.
"It is a very, very lonely life for them," she said.
In the days after the shelter in the woods was vandalized, Wilson sent a letter to the editor to Reynolds, who publishes the Spanish language newspaper Nosotros, expressing his "profound sadness at the vandalism targeted at members of the Latino community."
Wilson condemned the act, although he noted it did not occur in the borough. He said Freehold Borough is proud of its racial, ethnic, religious and cultural diversity.
"We welcome all law-abiding people and will not tolerate hatred or violence toward any group. There is no place in our community for racial or ethnic intolerance. If we lose our compassion for our fellow man, we lose that special character which sets up apart from lesser nations and communities," Wilson said.