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Tales of Two Tent Cities: No longer ‘Every man for himself’

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES – The first order of business at the homeless camp meeting was a noisy resident; the second, an unleashed dog. The third was a question: What can we do to give back to the community?

Nearly 20 homeless residents of the tent city known as Camp Hope came together, as they do once weekly, on a recent morning to work out the conflicts that arose over the past week and to make plans for the camp.

The city-sanctioned tent city for 50 residents sits on a square of city property just over the railroad tracks from Downtown, adjacent to a campus of social services that includes a daily soup kitchen, access to social workers and showers on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

A hodgepodge of donated tents on raised platforms are organized into a grid; residents take turns running a “camp office” from a tiny shed at the entrance. The Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, a nonprofit service center for the homeless, manages the camp.

It’s the only sanctioned camp of its kind in New Mexico and received national media attention lately as part of a growing trend to temporarily shelter the homeless in the face of inadequate shelter space or affordable housing.

“People have donated so much to the camp and so much support to the camp,” Stanley Smith said at the recent residents’ meeting. “I’m trying to figure, ‘How can the camp give back to the community?'”

Residents, seated on chairs in a circle, murmured ideas. How about donating extra blankets to the Humane Society? What about a play? What if we better ourselves?

“I think most people would like to see successes come out of here,” said Charles “Bones” Hughes, a Vietnam veteran and Camp Hope resident. “Do something positive for yourself. We’ve all lived in that garbage. It’s taken me a long time to realize that this is no place for me.”

Stanley Smith, a resident of Camp Hope in Las Cruces, walks the grounds Friday. The camp, which sits on city property near Downtown, offers residents a daily soup kitchen, access to social workers and showers on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. (Andres Leighton/For The Journal)

Stanley Smith, a resident of Camp Hope in Las Cruces, walks the grounds Friday. The camp, which sits on city property near Downtown, offers residents a daily soup kitchen, access to social workers and showers on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. (Andres Leighton/For The Journal)

Success story

By many accounts, Camp Hope has been a success and a model for transitioning the homeless from the street to housing – given that other housing options are tight. Camp residents say the safety and convenience of having a legal, regulated place to stay outweigh some of the camp’s drawbacks, including a lack of hot water and electricity and rules prohibiting propane stoves.

What sprang up in 2011 as a temporary solution to an impending winter has lasted three years. Last week, 37 people were living there – 29 men and eight women – as nearly a dozen other campers sought temporary shelter indoors during a rare snowstorm. Families and children are not permitted.

This spring, the City Council will consider issuing a permanent zoning change to formalize the camp, which has been operating under a temporary permit, said Nicole Martinez, executive director of the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope.

Martinez said she initially questioned the idea of a campground, when the end goal is to get people in housing. But homeless people already were camping around the soup kitchen and graffiti and garbage were problems, as was safety, she said.

By organizing the camp into designated plots with the help of New Mexico State University engineering students, people began to form ties and take greater responsibility for the area, she said. Having homeless residents close by also makes it easier for social workers to reach them and develop trust.

“We saw a huge change in the idea of every man for himself,” she said. “Instead, it’s been community.”

People stay at the camp anywhere from a few days to a few years; there is no time limit. There are rules including no drinking or drugs on the property – and breaking rules can get you banned – but, for some, the tent city provides more autonomy and privacy than a traditional homeless shelter. There is no curfew, and a weekly residents’ meeting offers an opportunity for self-government.

Some 2,475 individuals sought services at the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope last year, including 232 at Camp Hope. Of the people it served, 278 people were placed in permanent or transitional housing in 2014.

Joaquin Orozco rests in his tent Friday at Camp Hope in Las Cruces, which by many accounts is considered a model for transitioning the homeless from the street to housing. (Andres Leighton/For The Journal)

Joaquin Orozco rests in his tent Friday at Camp Hope in Las Cruces, which by many accounts is considered a model for transitioning the homeless from the street to housing. (Andres Leighton/For The Journal)

Temporary solution

Hank Hughes, executive director of the Santa Fe-based New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, said that although Camp Hope “seems to be working … our main recommendation is that we provide enough permanent support for housing so people can live like the rest of us.”

That’s been tough, Martinez said, since federal stimulus money dried up. Whereas the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope was placing six to eight camp residents in housing per month a couple of years ago, today the average number of camp residents that move over to housing is two to three per month.

Sanctioned tent cities are a pioneering concept in the fight to end homelessness but are hardly the norm.

Nationwide, cities are more prone to bulldoze homeless camps than certify them; last month, San Jose, Calif., cleared 200 homeless people out of a notorious illegal camp known as “The Jungle.”

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty documented more than 100 tent communities in 46 states between 2008 and 2013, with only eight legalized by local governments. A 2014 report by the center attributes the rise of tent cities in the U.S. to the recession and the lack of adequate housing or shelters.

In Albuquerque, a makeshift tent city has sprung up that is not sanctioned by the city. The campers are not organized and do not self-police one another’s activities.

Nearby residents and business operators want the city to remove the campers, citing problems with noise, fighting, drunkenness, drug use, prostitution and concerns about sanitation.

Nathan Small, a city councilor for the district that includes Las Cruces’ Camp Hope, credits police, volunteers and camp residents themselves for making the camp work.

“If you look at Camp Hope, for its size and scale, it is a tremendous success,” he said. “As a city, the challenge is what do we do next? How do we plan and work as a community that is inclusive?”

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