LAS CRUCES – Homelessness crept up on Matt Mercer.
He didn’t consider himself homeless until he moved to Las Cruces 10 years ago and began camping in a park not far from a soup kitchen.
But the Pennsylvania native had lived without a roof over his head on and off for years around Southern California, Miami and New Orleans.
People end up homeless – and sometimes stay homeless – for a lot of different reasons.
That’s why Camp Hope, a city-sanctioned tent city in Las Cruces, can serve a purpose as a place of transition, homeless residents say. A place to become part of a community again. A place to leave your things and not carry them around in a sack. A place to feel safe.
Mercer traces his homelessness to a physical, mental and emotional trauma that would haunt him: a brutal hate crime he says was committed against him at 18.
He survived. He went to New York University. But the trauma was too much, he said – he “felt like a ghost” – and he dropped out after a year.
Mercer began traveling around the country and Europe, working as a nanny or in restaurants yet still frequently living on the street, in parks or abandoned buildings. But he had a laptop and kept studying, learning about Tibetan Buddhism and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“All these homeless people,” he said, “you’d be so shocked at how much trauma people go through, and nothing is being dealt with.”
Mercer said he resisted help for years until some of the things he had been learning began to sink in.
“This is as free as it gets,” he said he realized. “You can learn whatever you want. You can heal whatever you really want to heal.”
I first heard Mercer speak at a group meeting at Camp Hope, which has drawn nationwide attention as a model. He wore overalls and a cardigan sweater and his hair tucked into a knit cap – a collegiate Bohemian look. I couldn’t tell whether he belonged to the camp or helped run it.
The answer, it turned out, was both.
Mercer helped found Camp Hope in 2011 after several years of living homeless in Las Cruces, “the first place that felt like home.” It was also the first place he ever made homeless friends, he said, the place he chose to start over.
Today, Mercer works for the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, which runs the camp. He lives in a mobile home in Las Cruces and organizes classes and activities for Camp Hope residents, including crisis intervention training and meditation.
Camp Hope has its limits and its critics.
It’s a bare-bones operation that isn’t for families or children. Only 50 residents are allowed, although the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope next door served nearly 2,500 individuals last year. People complain about the lack of hot water and electricity and a ban on propane stoves.
Advocates for the homeless stress that tent cities are not an answer to homelessness; the end goal is to help people move into permanent housing.
But a recent report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty concluded that “in some instances, tent cities can offer individuals and families autonomy, community, security and privacy in places where shelters have not been able to create such environments,” or where affordable housing falls short.
Mercer said Camp Hope is a necessary intermediary step for many. It was for him.
“The level of support here is just so phenomenal that it does make a difference,” he said. “A guy who camped out behind the garden shed for 10 years just came in this year to ask for help with his SSI” – federal disability payments – “and to get him into housing. It takes that long for some people.”
“The first year the camp was here, you could see this transformation happen,” he said, “not just for the people in the camp but the whole campus. I think it was empowering to say, ‘Hey we have our own camp now, and we get to manage it. We get to take care of it and take care of each other.’ ”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Lauren Villagran in Las Cruces at firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.