To address the homelessness crisis, some cities look to formal camps. Should ours? 

They're cheap, easy to build, and may ease the burdens of informal camping on neighborhoods.

But advocates worry it's a stop-gap solution that risks becoming permanent.
Jose Morales, a five-month resident of Camp Hope in Las Cruces, outside his tent.
One year ago, Jose Morales was living in a house in Anthony, the small town at the northern edge of the El Paso metro area that straddles the Texas-New Mexico border. He was doing okay, all things considered, with a car and no money worries to speak of. But soon enough, a drinking problem led to a financial problem, and he found himself homeless, sleeping behind a Wal-Mart in Las Cruces.

"It was a new experience for me," Morales said.

Though not a pleasant one. His goal in selecting the site was to keep a low profile but to be close enough to other people in case he ran into trouble, since he had heard about homeless people being attacked.

"I was looking for a place to feel safe," he said. 

Even with that level of advanced planning, he still never slept for more than a couple hours at a time at the Wal-Mart spot, worrying about what dangers the urban campus of a big box store might bring in the wee hours.

But one day at a local soup kitchen, he heard about a possible upgrade: Camp Hope, a formalized, officially-sanctioned encampment for homeless people organized by the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, a non-profit that runs an array of housing, case management, and other social service programs for the homeless at a sprawling campus in an industrial area on the southern edge of town. One short intake process later, and he was in.

The accommodations are still spartan, to be sure. He lives out of a tent, and while the three-walled structure that surrounds it helps with the wind and rain, there have been a few seriously cold nights. Morales had to make do this past winter with hand warmers and donated blankets.

But overall, it's a dramatic improvement over the old situation, he says, because of the safety. There's official permission. There's a fence. There are regular meetings where he and his fellow residents hash out rules. He even participates in the regular 24-hour security patrols.

"We always have a person doing checks," he says. 

Theft is not unheard of, but Morales feels comfortable leaving his tent and his bicycle while doing temp jobs elsewhere in town during the day. There's an on-site kitchen, running water, and bathrooms. He's gotten help with acquiring a drivers' license and is looking forward to one day getting a permanent job and home.

"It's a nice place for the next step," he says. 
At Camp Hope, residents assume responsibility for 24/7 security, which includes regular patrols. This is their schedule.
The selling points
Informal campsites set up by homeless people are a constant source of neighborhood consternation in greater Downtown Albuquerque and in many other urban centers around the West. Though illegal on city and private property alike here, laws alone cannot stop the sheer physics of the problem. People have to sleep somewhere, after all. And depending on the availability of beds at emergency shelters, whether you're welcome at such places to begin with, and whether you feel comfortable with the option if you have it, finding an informal spot somewhere may be the best or only choice. 

Plenty of people in this situation will find a discreet location, show up after dark, and be gone first thing in the morning without a trace. But others might linger, all-too-often without a great plan for trash disposal or where to go to the bathroom. That, in turn, causes exactly the sort of problems you might imagine. The more those problems crop up on sidewalks or at parks or community centers, the more local residents complain.

For political leaders, on whom the pressure to do something about this situation is matched only by the pressure to avoid spending money, attempting to shunt informal campers into a more officially sanctioned situation offers some key selling points. Portable bathrooms and regular trash collection can help tackle the waste disposal problem. Some kind of official social infrastructure making and enforcing rules can make life easier for first responders. And assuming you've got some vacant land or a spare parking lot in hand (easier said than done, of course), camps can be assembled in a matter of weeks and are easy to break down and move if need be.

"It's not like buying a building or leasing a building where you're kind of stuck," says Colin DeForrest, the homeless response coordinator for the city of Olympia, Wash., which set up an official encampment in late 2018. It holds 115 tent sites.

Another advantage for political leaders: Camps are dirt cheap. Between staff and supplies, DeForrest says his camp costs about $250,000 per year to operate, though the city is looking to boost on-site services which would double that price. In Las Cruces, Nicole Martinez, the executive director of the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, says she spends $12,000 per year on supplies and insurance for Camp Hope, plus the cost of one full-time staffer.

Compare that to $14 million, the approximate capital cost of the bricks-and-mortar 300-bed emergency shelter Albuquerque is in the process of finding a site for.  

Another key advantage of a formal camp over an informal one: It's easier to help people when they're all in one location. For Martinez, the camp represents a place where people can find that help and stabilize as they figure out the next step, which is hopefully permanent housing. (There's no limit to how long residents can stay, but the average is 59 days.)

And then there are the practical benefits to the rest of the city. 

"If we took this down," Martinez said, "we'd have 40-something people trying to figure out where to put their trash and go to the bathroom."

Small wonder, then, that officially-sanctioned camps appear to be witnessing something of a boom. In Washington, the coastal city of Aberdeen has set one up, and much larger Spokane is thinking about it, the Seattle Times reports. Both Martinez and DeForrest routinely talk to other cities about their efforts, and Martinez has even traveled to Durango to consult on a proposed encampment there.
Before and after in Olympia, Wash., where in 2018 city authorities turned an informal camp into one with official legal sanction. (Photo by the City of Olympia.)
Stop-gap solutions vs. permanent fixes
But if formalized encampments have improved the lives of many people experiencing homelessness, for others they also represent something of a moral conundrum. Why, after all, should a rich country settle for having people live in tents, even if that's a relative step up. Why should people in rough shape to begin with be subject to extreme weather, which around the country often gets even more extreme than what Mother Nature routinely throws at southern New Mexico and western Washington. 

On these questions, as with so many others, advocates are divided between those who pursue small victories and those who would prefer a larger fix. 

On one side are people like DeForrest, who sees an obvious immediate problem that requires obvious immediate mitigation. Traditional emergency shelters are great and serve a purpose, he argues, but they don't work for everybody. Some people have social phobias that don't fit well into crowded buildings. Others don't like the rules, which sometimes include sobriety, mandatory attendance at religious services, or being away from the building for most of the day. Still others appreciate the admittedly small amount of privacy offered by a tent and are willing to sacrifice climate control to get it. 

"There's people who want to sleep outside," DeForrest says. "It is what it is."

Here at home, as the city pursues a bricks-and-mortar shelter, an official encampment is not in the political cards, says Debbie O'Malley, the Bernalillo County commissioner and key promotor of the tiny home village at the Albuquerque Indian Center. The only thing that could change that equation, she reckons, is a further ramping up of the crisis. 

Still, "I think it should absolutely be considered," she says. Too often, Americans focus on the single-family home as the ultimate goal of all housing, but less conventional models work too, she says, particularly with the right management and a good plan for extreme weather. 

Others are simply not satisfied with camps.

"It's not perfect, it's not ideal," said David Dollahon, the assistant city manager of Las Cruces. (The city owns the land on which Camp Hope sits.) He was originally opposed to Camp Hope, but has since come around. Even so, "We were looking to make the best of a tough situation ... I think we can do more."

Still others worry that formal encampments, like big emergency shelters, are just the sort of allegedly temporary solution that ends up sticking around for decades, all the while sapping political will away from more comprehensive solutions like rent vouchers and affordable housing projects. That's the view of Jenny Metzler, the executive director of Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless. Though she has positive things to say about Martinez and her Las Cruces operation, she thinks cities can do better.

"Herding people into a camp doesn't address the issue of homelessness," Metzler says. "Ideally and ultimately and very possibly, housing would be the solution."
Editor's Note: This story was supported by the Solutions Journalism
, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
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