Mesilla Valley Community of Hope (MVCH) is an agency in Las Cruces, New Mexico, focused on providing shelter services, case management, income supports, and housing programming to the people of Doña Ana County. “Our mission is to promote dignity and empowerment among our local population,” says Executive Director Nicole Martinez. “We do that by offering them a comprehensive set of services and programs to help them get back on their feet and into permanent housing.” MVCH offers a range of services to community members, including intensive case management, legal services, income and benefit supports, basic necessities (e.g., laundry, showers, mail, internet), childcare, medical and mental health care, food assistance, emergency transportation, employment services, and more.
MVCH’s housing programming includes a range of options, including a 40-unit permanent supportive housing project, a 20-unit Veteran’s housing complex, special supports and programs for individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, homelessness prevention services, and new home set-up support, such as furniture and household supplies. And, for more than 10 years, MVCH has also offered an innovative alternative short-term housing solution: Camp Hope.
From Tent City to Small Community
In 2011, Martinez and her team saw a need to provide immediate, transitional housing support for individuals experiencing homelessness in their community. So, they asked the city of Las Cruces for a short-term, 3-month trial of a small tent city on their property to give the “street homeless” somewhere to stay. The city said yes, and the rest is history.
Camp Hope provides temporary housing in the form of tents to up to 50 adults experiencing homelessness at a time. Some tents are enclosed in raised, three-walled structures with roofs to help protect residents from the elements. The camp also has restrooms, showers, laundry, kitchen and cooking facilities, and a community garden.
“Camp Hope is open to anyone over age 25 and has fewer restrictions than some shelters and other temporary housing options,” says Martinez. “Residents have access to all of the services offered by MVCH, such as medical care and help organizing documents to obtain a state-issued ID and other necessities for moving into housing.” The presence of fewer restrictions makes it easier for residents to access basic supports, which opens the door for future opportunities to engage residents in services such as behavioral health treatment or vocational training and educational advancement.
After a short intake process, a housing navigator will work with residents on long-term coordinated community entry to get them into a more permanent home. Residents also have access to MVCH’s Mano y Mano Day Labor program, which provides daily paid work opportunities and supportive services.
People learn about the camp primarily through street outreach and word of mouth. For instance, local partners, such as hospitals, businesses, jails, and fire and police departments, will refer individuals experiencing homelessness to the MVCH services, including Camp Hope.
Helping Residents on Their Own Terms
Camp Hope allows residents to keep their pets, unlike many shelters. Drug and alcohol use are not allowed onsite, but if someone has been off the property and engaged in such activities, they can return to their campsite as long as they are not disrupting the other residents’ right to peaceful enjoyment of the camp. “The Camp is almost entirely self-governing,” says Martinez. “Following the principles of a ‘Housing First’ model, we focus on providing a safe place to stay and services and supports to residents first. They are empowered by having a voice in establishing the rules of the camp.” Residents are expected to adhere to some basic community standards, such as visitor curfews; no smoking in the tents; no violence, weapons, or threats of violence; and an expectation that they will contribute to the maintenance and upkeep of the camp.
Camp Hope is a helpful waypoint for some individuals who have been released from incarceration but haven’t yet passed the required background checks to get into the housing of their choice. While the camp does not do background checks, they request that new residents clear up any outstanding warrants they may have.
Most people stay for a few days or weeks, but there are no ironclad rules on the maximum length of residency. Residents are also free to leave and come back for a subsequent stay. The ultimate goal is to help residents move from Camp Hope into the housing of their choice.
Outcomes and Accolades
MVCH maintains a “data at a glance” webpage on its website; this helps track the use and impact of its programs. The data page also shows outcomes for Camp Hope residents.
|Camp Hope Data at a Glance
|Total people served:
|Went into housing:
|Went into MVCH programs
|Placed into other housing programs
While many housing support organizations operate using federal funding, Camp Hope instead depends on donations and a yearly “Tents to Rents” fundraising campaign. Last year that campaign raised nearly $80,000 from individual and sponsored donations. The program is widely respected, receiving a Certificate of Appreciation from the New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services, and was named a “best practice” example at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Respect within their community, such as their full recognition by the Las Cruces City Council, is especially gratifying for Martinez and her team. “Conditions in our communities create and sustain homelessness. Some people like to claim that people who are homeless are ‘outsiders’ in their cities, but usually, they’re not,” she says. “These are our neighbors and members of our community. We’re here to offer them a safe, compassionate, and dignified place to stay on their way to finding permanent homes.”
MVCH and Camp Hope staff are happy to share best practices and tips for any other agencies or communities interested in duplicating or borrowing ideas from their model. Visit their website for contact information.
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