The day is a mixture of calm and chaos. The smell of cigarettes permeates the air and the sound of ’70s music dances with the sounds of the wind. A man delights in a tuna sandwich and gives orders to another to clean a mess on a table. His voice is stern, but filled with care and concern. He has to be a leader. After all, he has nowhere else to go.
The man is the general to the tent city, protecting and watching over the people in the camp. He wears a camouflage jacket, jeans and combat boots. The residents call him “Daryl Rinckles,” rather than “Sergeant” or “General.” He has been mutually elected by them to take over for the soon-to-be-gone manager.
His headquarters is a small shack that works as an office. The wallpaper on the inside is made from papers and pamphlets and there are a few pictures of precious moments and a painting of Marylyn Monroe. In there is a radio that plays the classics and provides a feeling of rustic hospitality. On the outside of the shack, a word glares through the dusty wind and the sunshine: HOPE.
Hope is the name of the camp. It is a safe haven for our less fortunate brothers and sisters. Camp Hope provides an alternative shelter for the homeless population of Las Cruces by using tents and huts. Along with that shelter is food, clothes, and opportunity. The camp is located behind the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, which gives the homeless access to health care, volunteer work, and access to phones and computers. Since its establishment in 2011, the camp has seen its residents move on to get jobs and own homes. Even though some move on to better things, they know they will always have a home at Camp Hope.
“This camp is a step forward,” Daryl said. “I was here about a week-and-a-half and they put me on the safety committee board. Since I’ve been here I’ve seen about 25 to 26 people in and out,” he said with a nod.
The camp is funded by the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, an independent organization that serves the needs for the homeless. Though independently funded, the MVCH receives donations of food, clothes and other miscellaneous items.
Inside the camp, there are 50 spaces for anyone without a home. A new camper gets a space and a tent. After some paperwork and a few meetings, he or she is welcomed to the community.
“Best place to be if you ain’t got a home. I’ve been here about a month. I’m happy, even though it took me three days to get in,” Daryl said with a chuckle. “I didn’t want to be on the street anymore. It’s better than being alone and depressed. Loneliness is a slow death,” he said.
The shelves in the kitchen area are packed with an array of canned goods and other simple foods. Daryl reaches into a plastic bin packed with different breads, from a basic wheat to an English bagel. He needs the bread to finish the tuna salad in his bowl. Several campers pour a cup of coffee from the pot next to the radio, inviting a feeling of bliss and calmness. In addition to the pantry is a storage container, painted like the sky. Inside are rows of clothes that have come from all over. The container of clothing provides the campers with a variety of clothes, so they can choose what they wish to wear.
“It’s a decent place,” said Jose Hernandez, a local New Mexican. “There’s a little bit of family to it. (The camp) provides a way of transition for the people here. I like this place a lot.
Jose, an alumnus of New Mexico State University, works as a “designer” for the camp, picking and choosing clothes for people to wear and putting together outfits. Originally majoring in electronics, he has ideas for a new form of energy fuel created by compressed air. He said it would be less harmful to the environment and can limit the amount of resource consumption.
Beside the gates, sitting at a table, is a couple playing Madden Mobile on their Obama Phone, a free phone for welfare recipients. They converse with each other to the sound of classic rock on the radio. They are Teresa Ruffner and William Shira. They made the journey from Michigan to Las Cruces late last year. A friend of theirs promised William a job here in Las Cruces. When they arrived, their friend was nowhere to be found. The couple had no choice but to live on the streets until they discovered Camp Hope.
“This place has the kind of help that is rare,” Teresa said. “People here are helpful to each other,” she said. “This place gives us shelter, food, moral support and showers, and helps us find employment.”
“This place makes you feel welcome,” William said, still engaging in his game. “They make you feel good about yourself and they have a lot of respect. Working is a lot easier, too, now that we have a place to go and rest,” he said.
There’s a slightly different mood when Daryl enters the scene. William and Teresa both look up and notice him and greet him. Daryl, with a compassionate look in his eyes, pats William on the back and exchanges some friendly conversation. Sitting in the back is Jose, who appears lost in his thoughts. Daryl walks over to him and says a few words to his fellow man. They both laugh together. Across from the group is a camper the other’s call “Rabbit.” Daryl walks over to Rabbit who briefly expresses thanks. The day before, Rabbit was told he was getting kicked out and Daryl told him that he wouldn’t let that happen. After the exchange, Daryl retreats back to his office.
Daryl repeatedly implies that he is not a leader, but the other campers think otherwise. To the others, he shows leadership in his actions. To them he is the prime example of leadership in the camp. His presence reminds them of how they should treat each other. Though he doesn’t admit to it, he bears all the traits and qualities of a leader. The kind of leader the camp needs.
“I just treat everyone fairly,” he said. “Three rules I live by: I ain’t [going to] lie to you. I have no reason to. Second thing is I’m not going to steal from you. If (you) steal from me, just ask and I’ll give it to you because it’s just material stuff. Third thing is I’m going to give you respect, even if you disrespect me. If everybody in this world did that, then we wouldn’t have the problems that we have today,” he said.
Daryl is still unsure if he is going to stay at the camp. He said that he enjoys giving advice to the campers, both young and old. He said that he is really trying to be an example to them and hopes that the people with bad habits will turn their lives around. His face looks angry but has the concern of a father in his eye. His past life motivates him; it drives him to do the righteous thing for the people and for the camp.
“I hope when I walk out that gate, and my name is up, it’ll put a smile on people’s faces. I hope they’ll say, ‘that was one good guy’,” Daryl said, with his hands behind his head and his feet up on the desk. He stares outside of his headquarters, smiling as people walk by, enjoying the gifts of life and community. His eyes hold a stern gaze, but show a glimmer of compassion and humility. “They’re good people,” he says.