WRITER: Kristen Sullivan
On a chilly and windy Saturday in late February, a group of 20 New Mexico State University students gathered to discuss the plan for the day. Today is one of their last community service days at Camp Hope, a tent city sanctioned by the city for the homeless residents in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Camp Hope was developed in 2011 as a temporary solution to the impending winter and stayed as a permanent shelter for homeless residents. Camp Hope is located within a short distance of a soup kitchen, social services, a medical clinic, restrooms and showers.
Engineering Without Boundaries, a student organization within NMSU’s College of Engineering, designed the layout of the camp into organized plots and has helped do routine maintenance. That Saturday, students were responsible for spreading 20 tons of gravel purchased by the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope throughout the camp to stop puddles and mud bogs from forming within the camp confines.
“I believe this a good experience for all our students,” Matthew Meyers, civil engineering junior and president of Engineering Without Boundaries, said. “It is a way to give a helping hand to our local community.”
Engineering Without Boundaries has been involved with Camp Hope since March 2012 when the site was at risk of termination. With no funds to build a permanent homeless shelter, the Las Cruces City Council told Camp Hope that to remain in place, Camp Hope must rezone as a planned unit development to allow camping in accordance with the Bureau of Reclamation guidelines. With no funds to hire professional engineers and no zoning experience, Engineering Without Boundaries stepped in to assist with the site plan, tent location, drainage plans and access plans.
Kenny Stevens, adviser for Engineering Without Boundaries and professor of engineering technology, has a long history of volunteerism that he has passed down to the students at NMSU through Engineering Without Boundaries. Stevens has been involved with Engineering Without Boundaries since the beginning and said he is incredibly proud of all the work the students have done.
“It’s a fantastic thing when you have 10 students signed up and 20 show up; it turns a five-hour job into a two-hour job,” Stevens said. “Everyone is so anxious and eager to help. We’ve had a ton of thank you’s and the residents really appreciate it.”
Matt Mercer, a resident of Camp Hope, said his homelessness came from a physical, mental and emotional trauma from a hate crime he endured at 18. Mercer began traveling around the country and Europe, working part-time jobs, but still forced to live on the street, in parks or abandoned buildings. He said he resisted assistance for years before seeking help.
“This is as free as it gets,” Mercer said. “You can learn whatever you want. You can heal whatever you really need to.”
Mercer helped found Camp Hope and currently works for the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, which runs the camp. Mercer said that Camp Hope is the first place that felt like home, where he made his first homeless friends and where he chose to start over.
Only 50 residents are allowed within Camp Hope, although the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope has served more than 2,500 in 2014. Within the complex, there are a few rules: alcohol, guns, abusive language or behavior are prohibited and residents must perform six hours of service per week, typically guarding the camp or collecting donations. Meetings are held every Tuesday to discuss issues, such as friction between those who collect money from the government each month and those who do not, as well as gossip and hygiene issues. Many accounts have cited Camp Hope as a success and model for transitioning the homeless from the street to housing. Residents say that the benefits of having a safe, legal and regulated place to live far outweigh any of the drawbacks, such as the ban on propane stoves and the lack of hot water and electricity.
Advocates for the homeless emphasize that tent cities are not a solution to the problem of homelessness, but are rather intermediaries that help move people into permanent housing. A recent report by the national Law Center on Homeless and Poverty stated “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 there is a lack of affordable housing.
Mercer said that Camp Hope is a necessary in between step for many. “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 problems that initially brought residents here have not been solved. There is still a prevalent issue with intoxication and drugs, even with the strict rules. Tammy Nettnay, a self-described recovering drug addict, a prostitute with several felony convictions, admitted at a weekly meeting of residents that she had gotten drunk twice at the camp. She did, however, admit when someone handed her a parcel of methamphetamine (once her drug of choice), she threw it away.
“It’s not that I want to be here; I need to be here,” Nettnay said. “I don’t have any hopes and dreams now. It’s just day by day. I need God to show me what to do.”
In addition to engineering students affiliated with Engineering Without Boundaries, a group of five students in a management class chose to volunteer with the organization as part of a community service component to the class.
“I think that this is a service event that’s maybe more rewarding than some,” Ashleigh Laumback, a sophomore majoring in marketing said. “These people don’t have anything, which makes it much more beneficial.”
Hannah Johnson, a civil engineering freshman, said that this community service helps Engineering Without Boundaries prepare for the work they will be doing in the future.
Engineering Without Boundaries conducts projects in different countries and have built a community center in Querétaro, Mexico and bridges in Mexico and Nicaragua. The group is planning a trip in the summer to Nicaragua to build a suspended pedestrian bridge.