BROCKTON — The Rev. Sharon Williams looks as fresh and crisp in her flowing denim skirt as if she were heading out to a lunch date, maneuvering the humid, jungle-like paths of Tent City with purpose and ease.
In fact, the pastor of Rockland’s Possibilities Ministries is bringing a meal into the woods — as she has done twice a month for a decade — to a group of homeless men and women in the largely hidden encampment in the heart of downtown Brockton.
Tent City, so named years ago by the people who live there, has existed unknown or unnoticed by most city residents and visitors until this spring, when two people were found fatally burned in their tent, victims of an apparent accident with a charcoal grill. Since then, vandals have deliberately started a number of fires at campsites, leaving Tent City’s denizens constantly on edge.
The situation is frustrating to Mayor Bill Carpenter, who says he not only wants the camp cleared out, he’d like the nearby Father Bill’s & MainSpring House homeless shelter to relocate.
Carpenter said revitalizing the downtown business district is one of his biggest challenges, but business owners near the shelter and Tent City complain the homeless scare away customers by loitering, and at times go to the bathroom on private lawns and driveways when there are no other options.
New businesses are hesitant to open in the downtown because of the perception it isn’t safe, the mayor said, and visitors roll up their car windows instead of getting out to walk around.
Williams, who is also the triage manager at the shelter, says she would love to be able to open a day center so the homeless have somewhere to go. For now, though, she leaves her car on the outskirts of the 30-acre property bordered by North Montello, Elliot, and North Cary streets, and ventures in. The trunk of her teal Chrysler 300 is stuffed with donated clothing, rolls of toilet paper, bug spray, hats, sunglasses — anything she can think of that might be useful to the two dozen or so people she expects to see.
Later, many of them will walk out of the woods with her, pick up what they need from the car, and join her in prayer. Then Williams and associates Della Jones and Maria Felix will move on to the next stop.
“You know how some people have bumper stickers that say, ‘I brake for yard sales’?” Williams says, swinging a bag of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“Well, mine is, ‘I stop for the homeless,’ ” she said. “Our ministry is to feed them, clothe them, and pray for them.’’
Tent City is an anomaly in this city of 100,000-plus people. It’s an enclave, a maze of makeshift camps along abandoned railroad tracks owned by Consolidated Railroad Corp. — within sight of City Hall but a world away for the folks who wind up here by circumstance or by choice.
Most of the living quarters are tucked far off the main pathways and made up of tents, tarps, old stuffed furniture, shopping carts, coolers, and whatever else may be helpful to the occupants. Williams describes it as a neighborhood where people watch out for one another.
The thing with Tent City, she says, is that some folks who stay here have spilled over from homeless shelters and others just prefer a life with no rules. “These people just have a different mentality when they choose to live in the woods,” she says.
Williams leads the way under a colorful, graffiti-covered railroad bridge and down a dark, overgrown trail glittering with broken glass. Mosquitoes descend in ominous clouds.
A young woman, bleary-eyed and unfocused, appears around a corner, and attempts to hide a crack pipe. She says she has spent the night walking in the woods and her belongings have been stolen. Williams invites her back to the car later for replacements.
Soon after, a quiet young man on a bike wheels over. “How long have you been here, honey?” Williams asks, handing him a bag lunch.
He says it’s been a couple of days, and she asks if he needs a prayer.
He lowers his head and seems close to tears. “We all do,’’ he says.
Farther along, a camp appears empty. There are two tents here, a table with cast-iron pots, and an old mattress on the ground.
“It’s just Sharon leaving a lunch, guys,’’ Williams shouts loudly, just in case, before she and her associates unzip the tents and leave a bag in each. To the side, a new work jacket dangles from a branch and an elaborate wood-framed mirror is affixed to a tree trunk.
At the next stop, two men and a woman sit on a hodgepodge of chairs, talking and drinking beer.
One of them, Derek Hayward, 29, says that he’s from Avon, Whitman, and generally the South Shore, and that the last good job he had was in a restaurant.
He says he came to Brockton to stay at Father Bill’s on North Main Street but then transitioned to the woods, “where there’s always someone to talk to.”
The other two — 38-year-old R and 48-year-old Jane — tell their stories but ask not to be identified by their full names. R says he has lived in Tent City for three years after a bad breakup of a relationship caused by going off the medication he takes for bipolar disorder.
He says he worked a job for a while and came home to the woods at night, but now just collects cans and scrap for about $50 a day.
Jane says she was living near Plymouth and working a warehouse job when she lost her house. Her daughter has lived in Tent City for seven years, so when Jane’s luck ran out, she packed up a tent and joined her, she says.
“Sometimes you get mad and angry, do you know what I mean?” she says.
When she needs to, Jane says, she can drop in on friends for a shower. But it’s tough to get health care and other services without a phone or an address. “Where are they going to call me, at 1-800-THE-WOODS?” she says.
All three say they are worried about fires in the camp area, including the fatal blaze in May that was eventually ruled an accident. Others have been purposefully set since, they add, and while no one has been injured, people are on edge.
It’s a situation that irks Carpenter, who said recently that Brockton’s perception as the local hub of social service agencies needs to change. But that will be tough, he said, since state and county courts, as well as housing, nutrition, and other relief organizations, are all located here.
“I think Brockton is carrying the burden for the entire region,” since the vast majority of the city’s homeless hail from elsewhere, said Carpenter.
“It’s incumbent on the state to step in and help us financially,” he added. “And I would also like Father Bill’s to change their location.”
The shelter’s executive director, John Yazwinski, said that Father Bill’s & MainSpring’s goal is to move the homeless to housing and jobs, not to stay open forever, and that he would love for the day to come when beds for transients are no longer needed.
Until then, people need shelter, he said, as they have for the 30 years since its doors opened.
“I’d hate to think about what would happen if we weren’t here,’’ Yazwinski said. “Let’s combat homelessness and not start blaming people.”
Yazwinski said he is frustrated the state has not raised the $25 nightly reimbursement rate the shelter receives for each full bed in 14 years. The state also only reimburses for a combined total of 126 shelter beds in Father Bill’s & MainSpring’s Brockton and Quincy facilities, when the average nightly combined total of people receiving shelter — in beds, chairs, and on any available floor space — is 225 guests, he said.
Matthew Sheaff, spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, said the fiscal year 2015 budget signed by Governor Deval Patrick on July 11 contains a rate increase for shelter programs but the exact amount is still being worked out. He said it might be around $30 per bed.
Back at Tent City, the lunches have been handed out and Williams and company begin to retrace their steps. Men and women follow her out of the brush, and soon they are crowding around the Chrysler as she distributes slacks, shirts, and a few pairs of shoes.
When the supplies are gone, Williams grabs the nearest hand.
“Let’s circle up and pray,’’ she says, asking for special requests.
“Happiness,” a gruff man says, after a moment. Some nod yes. And Williams complies, ending with a plea that “no hurt, harm, or danger come upon them.”
When she’s done, the group breaks up. Some shake hands. Some hug. Some linger for a moment or two chatting, and the rest turn to the path that leads into the woods, and disappear.
►A January 2013 census found 19,029 homeless people in Massachusetts.
►Massachusetts saw the fifth-highest increase in homelessness among all states in 2012-2013, according to those figures.
►As of May 22, there were approximately 4,600 families with children and pregnant women in the Massachusetts Emergency Assistance shelter program, 1,889 of them in motels. This number does not count those living in unsafe conditions, such as in Tent City, or in their cars.
►On any given night in Massachusetts, the approximately 3,000 night shelter beds for individuals are full.
Source: US Department of Housing and Urban Development
By the numbers
►30-acre property in Brockton bordered by North Montello, Elliot, and North Cary streets
►About 24 residents have spilled over from shelters in Brockton; others are there by choice
►$25 nightly reimbursement rate from state for shelter beds
►126 beds reimbursed at Father Bill’s & MainSpring’s shelters in Brockton and Quincy
►225 guests on average each night at Father Bill’s & MainSpring shelters
SOURCES: City of Brockton; the Rev. Sharon Williams; Father Bill’s & MainSpring HouseMichele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@ live.com.