The flashbacks and delusions seemed more vivid behind closed doors, so the Vietnam War veteran decided to spend the rest of his life outside.

Lorenzo "Jamaica" Banks found a patch of woods in downtown Camden - next to the Route 676 exit ramp, behind the Police Department and around the corner from Campbell Soup's world headquarters. He cleared out the syringes and put up a tent.

That was two years ago. Now there are 17 people, all invited by Banks, living in what's known around town as Tent City.

Banks, 56, is "mayor" of the makeshift village, which he oversees with a second-in-command - his "CEO," he says - who is in charge when Banks leaves to buy supplies. There are rules (including weekly tent inspections) posted on a bulletin board. The city of Camden even picks up the trash, neatly stacked in bags along the train tracks.

"I have peace of mind," said Banks, who claims he served time in prison for murder. "We're a big family. . . . We count on each other. That's what makes it so good."

Banks and his Tent City constituents filled out a questionnaire yesterday morning as part of an annual nationwide census of the homeless intended to help social-service providers better meet their needs. New Jersey began its one-day count at midnight; Pennsylvania also surveyed its homeless yesterday.

Just after 7 a.m., three workers from Camden's Volunteers of America made fresh tracks in the snow as they walked past the bare trees and into Tent City. "Where are you staying tonight?" they asked its inhabitants. "Were you ever in foster care?" "Do you have a photo ID?"

In exchange, the homeless got ham sandwiches, juice, and as much leftover Christmas candy as they wanted.

It was one of several stops the VOA and staff from other groups in Camden made yesterday. The homeless were directed to Cathedral Kitchen, a soup kitchen in the city, where representatives from social-service agencies offered assistance all day.

The homeless say that this year's census will show their numbers are swelling. Tent City is a microcosm of the homeless, with recovering addicts, jobless veterans and the mentally ill - ages 22 to 74 - all represented, Banks said.

In each tent, amid piles of donated blankets and cans of ethanol used for heat, there is a tale of heartbreak.

There's John Palumbo, 53, a Mount Laurel native with bipolar disorder who was asked, "How do you stay warm in winter?"

"You don't," he replied simply.

Before he got to Tent City, he spent his nights at the Walter Rand Transportation Center, standing up.

There's Neil Floyd, 53, a former truck driver whose life fell apart after he had a kidney transplant and his wife died.

"I just keep looking up, keep hoping things get better for us," said Floyd, who came to Camden from Jacksonville, Fla., for his surgery. "That's all we got is each other. We have to help each other out here."

And there's Jessica Massa, a pregnant 26-year-old with seven estranged children who uses a bucket in her tent to go to the bathroom.

She said she couldn't get into a shelter in Camden and was invited to Tent City by Banks, who owns the tents and decides who lives there.

Massa, originally of Gloucester County, said she liked her new home because "you can come and go as you please."

Three months into her pregnancy, she has yet to receive prenatal care. One of the survey takers gave her a medical referral.

Tent City isn't a secret. Church groups regularly stop by to offer food and clothing, those who live there say. Sometimes homicide detectives and sheriff's officers drop in, hoping for tips.

Camden Police Chief John Thomson said there had never been a problem at Tent City, which is on state Department of Transportation property.

"If we push them out of there, where are they going to go?" Thomson asked.

There are far more homeless people (722 by last year's count) than homeless-shelter beds (about 220) in Camden County. The county uses the lobby of its administration building as a warming center on particularly cold nights.

But the tent dwellers stay outside. Decorating the compound are found items - an orange construction fence around one "neighborhood" of tents, a one-way street sign nailed to a tree.

Parked nearby are the only wheels the residents have: bicycles and shopping carts.

They use a propane grill to make coffee and pass the time with battery-operated radios and TVs.

"Like Friday night, we all sat in a tent and watched SmackDown," Banks said, referring to the wrestling show.

A former heroin addict, Banks said he does not tolerate drugs in Tent City, but alcohol is OK. Those who cause problems are escorted out, he said.

"It's a beautiful situation, and we try to keep it on the level," said Bill Johnson, 68, Banks' lieutenant.

Someone is awake at all times, Banks said, to guard the perimeter for intruders and, occasionally, kids on drugs who throw rocks at them.

Tent City is also known as Veterans Camp, for the several Vietnam War vets who live there, or J-Camp, for Banks' native Jamaica. In the summer, Banks said, as many as 60 people stay there.

Some of those interviewed yesterday have been at Tent City for only a few months, and most don't plan to stay.

"I still have dreams," Floyd said. "I still have things I want to do. I want to be a father, a family man. I don't plan to stay here all my life. I told [my daughters] I'd make it."

Speaking under a steady, freezing rain, Floyd declared: "It can't stay rainy every day."