Add Camp Hope to the reasons Las Cruces is a pretty good city. It may also prove a useful model to other cities facing the national problem of homelessness.
Camp Hope began in November 2011 as a last-ditch effort to protect homeless people from the ravages of imminent winter weather and sporadic violence by vandals against them. .
Interestingly, Camp Hope quickly developed some semblance of self-government: a Leadership Council that meets weekly, a Safety Council, and something of a grounds crew. There’s a world of difference between being told what to do and feeling you have some say. People started taking some responsibility.
Second, people got through the winter without getting beat up or getting their tents burned.
Some who qualified for disability or other assistance managed to get paperwork started, while others found at least temporary work. Being able to shower, wash clothes, or browse Internet job postings (and receive responses) not only made life healthier and more comfortable but helped folks seek employment or accommodations. Without those amenities, employable individuals had a hard time convincing anyone they were.
Some were even able to help others. A fellow who got a painting contract at NMSU got several other homeless people hired on.
Many of these folks are not employable. Many are old, physically disabled, and/or mentally or emotionally disabled. But others became homeless the way many of us easily could: an unforeseen medical expense or layoff, plus insufficient financial reserves to keep paying rent or mortgage. (I spoke with a licensed carpenter and a laid-off United Auto Worker.) Once you’re on the street, amassing enough money to pay first and last months’ rent plus a security deposit is nearly impossible.
Camp Hope also provided just what the name suggests: hope.
Matt Mercer and James von Behren were instrumental in starting Camp Hope.
Matt had been somewhat closed and anti-social, perhaps because of some unfortunate events including a hate crime. He was beaten up very badly – and then ostracized when, quite a bit later, he reported it. Then here in Las Cruces vandals burned his tent – with him in it. He barely escaped.
Matt said his work with other homeless people has been so rewarding that he hopes to go back to school and develop credentials to help people, perhaps as a social worker. James, who also helped initiate Camp Hope, is in the process of transferring college credits from another state to NMSU, to enhance his ability to help others. (Matt also keeps a Camp Hope blog: http://www.hopevillagelascruces.wordpress.com/)
With others, progress is more measured. We saw one lady sitting on the ground, her back against a small building. Staff had tried to get her to sleep indoors, but she refuses because she’s employed by the CIA, and the CIA doesn’t permit it. She trusted no one, and rarely spoke. Then she adopted the cat that lives under the building. "Now she talks and smiles and discusses her cat," we were told. Whatever progress is made toward re-integrating her with the world, or helping her feel safe, has to be a good thing.
At the recent council meeting to approve extending Camp Hope, the first homeless person to speak had obviously been crying. He said, "I had a speech written, but I’m not sure I can even deliver it. I’m sorry for being so damned emotional." He added, "I’ve seen what happened when citizens didn’t take responsibility" and commended the City. "I hope you don’t let this light go out."
The council voted – unanimously, I think – not to let the light go out.
But how did this happen? How did a group of vulnerable, unruly, and untrusting people become a community working together with trust and respect?
A key factor was getting the homeless folks talking to each other – and listening. "Great Conversations" meetings in October 2011 were a breakthrough, and Randy Harris has continued holding regular Great Conversations sessions with these folks. As Community of Hope board-member Bob Hearns describes it, "The first meeting no one spoke, a few people came in grudgingly. These were people who had lived really years alone, in a situation where it really didn’t pay to trust other people. The second meeting a few people spoke. Then suddenly after three or four meetings staff were saying, ‘I’ve known that guy two years, and he’s never said a word, but he’s in there talking and making sense.’"
Community of Hope was willing to rosl extending the homelessness some degree of self-government.
In a generally progressive municipal government, people cared enough to take a chance.
Presented with a chance to let the city play landlord to a bunch of homeless people because there have been deaths and violence and rapes, councillors had to see that if they approved some tent city, the public would see any deaths or violence there as the council’s fault. So it took a bit of backbone to approve the idea of Camp Hope.
Once the council approved the idea, police, fire marshals, and zoning folks immediately raised quite appropriate practical questions. According to Hearn, City Manager Robert Garza’s "unqualified support" made the difference. "He was the rock that we built this whole thing on at the outset. He stuck his neck out." City Councilors Nathan Small and Olga Pedroza were also key supporters.
Finally, our community responded with donations of money and needed items. People showed up with food, church groups had cookouts, etc.
Councilor Pedroza calls it "an astounding social experiment." Hearn says he’s "amazed by how it’s turned out." Several homeless people told me they’d never seen anything like it.
But it’s still a work in progress, and you can help. Visit – or call Community of Hope – to see how.
[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, April 1st. ]
Community of Hope is a non-profit organization, not religiously affiliated. Folks reading this who may wish to donate to it -- or specifically to Camp Hope -- can do so by mailing a check to 999 West Amador, Las Cruces, NM 88005, or on the Netowrk for Good web-site, or, I think, at the Community's own web-site, http://www.mvcommunityofhope.org/ They're also looking for volunteers, notably at the El Caldito soup kitchen, which feeds folks in need every day.