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NMSU Engineers Without Borders lend a hand to help homeless at Camp Hope

Social workers typically know very little about planning and zoning laws, but Nicole Martinez, executive director of Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, has found herself taking a crash course on the subject in order to keep the 50 residents of Camp Hope, a tent community on the Community of Hope property, sheltered from the streets - and severe weather.

Three people gather around plans to help with the rezoning of the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope property in Las Cruces.
Kenny Stevens, NMSU Engineers Without Borders adviser (left); Nicole Martinez, executive director of Mesilla Valley Community of Hope (center); and NMSU Engineers Without Borders students examine plans NMSU EWB designed to help Martinez with rezoning the site to accommodate overnight camping -- and with that, the continuation of Camp Hope, the tent community for the homeless, on the property. (NMSU photo by Emily C. Kelley)
NMSU Engineers Without Borders students take measurements at Camp Hope, a homeless camp, in Las Cruces, N.M.
NMSU's Engineers Without Borders is helping the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope meet rezoning requirements for Camp Hope, a tent community for the homeless on the MVCH campus. (EWB courtesy photo)

"Each year, we lose homeless people to the elements and we didn't want to see that happen," Martinez said.

The Mesilla Valley Community of Hope is a center that serves the homeless and indigent in Las Cruces, offering a wide array of services and resources for those in need.

Camp Hope was founded in November 2011, after Martinez's predecessor at the Community of Hope asked the Las Cruces City Council for permission to temporarily form the tent city, in response to the freezing temperatures of the previous winter, until funding could be secured for an additional homeless shelter.

By March 2012, when Camp Hope was initially supposed to disband, shortly after Martinez took over as executive director of the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, there was still no funding available to build another shelter. The City Council agreed, however, that Camp Hope has been a benefit to Las Cruces, but for the camp to remain in place, the Community of Hope must work to rezone the area as a planned unit development to allow camping, following Bureau of Reclamation guidelines.

With no experience in zoning and no budget to hire a team of engineers at the Community of Hope, New Mexico State University's Engineers Without Borders stepped in to lend a helping hand, following a suggestion from County Commissioner Karen Perez.

"EWB at NMSU likes to do two big projects each year - one international and one local," said Kenny Stevens, NMSU EWB adviser and associate professor of engineering technology and surveying engineering. "EWB had finished up their last local project in Anthony and we were contacted by County Commissioner Karen Perez, who said she had been working with the Community of Hope and that there might be a good project for us here."

Before Engineers Without Borders became involved, Martinez met with city staff and learned how to develop a concept plan, which includes all potential future uses of the land by the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope. Once her plan was complete, departments from the City of Las Cruces approved the concept plan, with conditions, as did Planning and Zoning Commission.

"I'm a social worker, but I'm getting schooled in planning pretty quickly," Martinez said. "They approved the concept plan, but with 16 conditions. Of those conditions, we are comfortable with 14 of them. The two conditions that would be difficult for us to meet are building permanent bathrooms out there and building a kitchen facility. We don't have the funding to do something like that, which would be over $300,000, and they are also instituting a timeline for us to have it completed in 18 months."

Other requirements from the city are in following Bureau of Reclamation guidelines, such as to lift the tent pad sites up on timber, with gravel or some sort of composite material in the middle so that they can drain. The tent sites must be at a 1.5 percent slope and at least 10 feet apart from one another. In addition, the drainage pond must be able to accommodate the size of the camp, which currently serves 50 people.

Engineers Without Borders is helping with these requirements.

"We've been working with Nicole on the engineering aspects of it - mainly the site plan, how the tents would be located, what the drainage plan would be, what the access would be," said Stevens. "We are just trying to do whatever we can to address the concerns Planning and Zoning and the City Council has for the Community of Hope."

Service learning is important to many students, and those involved in Engineers Without Borders are glad for the opportunity to help their community.

"We are going to design the plots for the tents. We are going to do the runoff calculations and design the retention pond here," said NMSU EWB President Salvador Hernandez. "It feels really cool, especially to use all that we're learning in the classroom, and apply it to real world problems. Engineering is a public service career, so for us, to do this through our school and apply it to our learning skills, this is great."

While the residents of Camp Hope live in tents, they do have access to the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope showers, bathrooms and climate-controlled facility during business hours, Monday through Friday each week. They also have hot meals during the weekdays and bagged meals on weekends. Port-a-potties are available at the camp 24 hours each day. Clients have access to computers, mail, laundry facilities and a variety of classes, along with case managers who can assist in filing for social security, Medicaid, veteran benefits and housing assistance, all in an expedited manner.

"That's the nice part of having this homeless/indigent campus right here, so they can access all kinds of wraparound services," Martinez said.

The Mesilla Valley Community of Hope manages six different housing programs, in addition to Camp Hope. The Gospel Rescue Mission is just across the street from the Community of Hope, but they have time limitations and do not allow pets in their facility, according to Martinez. They simply cannot serve the entire homeless population of Las Cruces.

"The year we've been here, we've been really blessed that the City Council has been so supportive, that the community has been so amazing in its support," said Matt Mercer, a volunteer manager and founding resident of Camp Hope.

"At this stage, it's really important because this has become a legitimate program of the Community of Hope, to really take this step to make sure it's a safe place - not just health and sanitation - but that people are really safe and comfortable out here. Our oldest resident now is 83 and we have a lot of people with chronic disabilities and health problems. I think it makes it more legitimate, not just for the camp, but for the city, to say we're part of this project that's really serving the people," Mercer said.

The next step in the process is for Martinez to evaluate the plans Engineers Without Borders presented to her in December, and to suggest any changes. Her next meeting with the City Council/Planning and Zoning Commission is scheduled at 1 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4. The meeting is open to the public.

According to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report, on a single night in January 2012, approximately 633,782 people were homeless in the U.S. Of these, 36,860 of them were considered street homeless, or the unsheltered homeless population.

"It really is hard on you, living out here in these conditions," Mercer said.

With a little help from the community and Engineers Without Borders, Camp Hope will continue to be a place where the homeless in Las Cruces can seek refuge, assistance and a path to being rehoused, reducing the number of homeless one case at a time.

If you would like to help the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope in its quest to meet rezoning requirements, please call Nicole Martinez at 575-523-2219. To contact Engineers Without Borders to assist with donations of materials or labor, email ewb@nmsu.edu.

To learn more about Engineers Without Borders visit www.ewbnmsu.org and to learn more about Camp Hope, please visit http://hopevillagelascruces.wordpress.com/.