LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — In February of 2011, an arctic cold front covered Las Cruces in ice and snow. The low temperature of minus-5 on Feb 3 was the fourth coldest on record.

For those living on the streets, the situation was critical. It was from that winter weather emergency that Camp Hope was established on the Community of Hope campus. The tent city was only intended for 90 days, but it proved to be so successful that the city made the necessary changes to allow it to remain.

"It was all about safety," said James Sassak, one of four of the original founders of Camp Hope. "That's what it started for, to have safety and to have people around for those who were in need. We formed a little group there and it progressed to where 90 days was extended because everything was happening so well. Police calls dropped. Emergency calls dropped. The violence dropped.

"This was an experiment we were trying to do, to basically have a homeless community with political aspirations and our own governance."

Sassak has been homeless twice in his life, a victim of the economic crisis of 2008, he said. Today, he uses that knowledge and understanding to help others in his situation as a peer support specialist at St. Luke's Clinic.

TEMOPORARY HOUSING

Yoli Silva began working with the Las Cruces Public Schools' Project Link Homeless Education project 12 years ago. The program is designed to help and support students in the district who are homeless.

"Our main focus is to make sure that kids are enrolled immediately and have all the benefits that other kids have in school, and they're not missing anything because of their homeless situation."

Recent stories on television news and in the Sun-News have drawn attention to the problem. Silva said the 600 to 700 homeless students whom they have identified are likely only a fraction of the total homeless population. And, she said there is no way to calculate how many teens under the age of 18 are homeless and not enrolled in school.

Silva and Sassak had the same answer when asked what the top priority should be — temporary housing.

Families and Youth Inc. ran two group homes for teens and a transitional living center for 20 years, but those were shut down after FYI lost its Medicaid funding as part of a statewide shake-up by the Martinez administration in 2013. Now, they are trying to get those reopened, Silva said.

"FYI is getting their feet back on the ground, and they're looking to restart those shelters. But it's going to take commitment from our community," she said.

With those shelters closed, teens have no place to go now, she said.

"When you're an adult, you can ask for services, as far as going to the Community of Hope. You can do applications (for government assistance). But when you are under 18 and you're living on the street, you're not able to do that because of your age. So, we do not have services for students who are in that situation."

Sassak said that even for adults, the need for temporary housing is great. Las Cruces has only one shelter, the Gospel Recuse Mission. And many homeless, especially those with mental health issues, have difficulty complying with the rules at the mission, he said.

"The shelter is the big thing," he said. "Instead of going to the emergency room over and over or going to the jail over and over . that's the area where we can get them and basically provide the services for them."

IDENTIFYING THOSE IN NEED

A big challenge is identifying those who need help, and getting them to accept it, Sassak said.

"There are many homeless who don't come to the Community of Hope because they just want to stay off the grid," he said.

For teens, there are additional fears that asking for help could alert child protective services, Silva said.

"They're afraid it's foster care. When I first contact families, they say 'no I don't want any services because I don't want CYFD to come take away my kid,'" she said, referring to the state Children, Youth and Families Department.

"It's not illegal to be homeless and it's not abuse to be homeless. It's just circumstances that lead to homelessness. Part of it is we need to get away from the stereotype and realize this is not a Community of Hope problem; it's not a school district problem; it is a community problem."

Silva said she is hopeful that the recent attention drawn to the issue of homeless teens will stir those in the community to act for change.

"I totally love the fact that they give me the toothpaste and the deodorant and that kind of thing. But one of the things I think is going to be key is they need to be a voice," she said. "They need to be at that council meeting, they need to be talking to their representative, they need to be sending the mayor an email and whoever else."

Sassak described the homeless problem in Las Cruces as "solvable."

"If we could get that temporary housing and then move them into permanent housing; if we increase the shelters, we can solve the homeless problem in this city," he said. "That's my goal. Anyone who comes to this city, if they want a home or if they want service they could get it and there wouldn't be one homeless person on the street."

That will only be possible with a sustained commitment, Silva said.

"We'll have to see how this movement works," she added. "If it stays intact and keeps its momentum, then I would say yes, we'll see some changes. But, there's such a thing as a 10-year plan to end homelessness.

"If the momentum doesn't stay there and the support doesn't stay in place . We had a shelter, and it went away. We had group homes and then they went away. We need to make sure this stays a priority. Then I'll say we've made some changes."

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Information from: Las Cruces Sun-News, http://www.lcsun-news.com