SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) — Tears flowed down Heidi Martinez's cheeks as she slowly ripped up a stack of photographs and dropped them into a fire pit. The San Angelo Standard-Times reports she watched them burn and turn to ashes before quietly returning to her tent. Her husband Joe quickly followed.
“This is really hard for both of us,” Joe Martinez said after he returned from the tent. “The people here have become our family. It might not be much, but this has been our home for the past eight months.”
It was the Martinezes' last day at the tent city under the Houston Harte Expressway in San Angelo. Joe and Heidi were among the first people there and helped create this community for the homeless, a place they dubbed “Camp Hope.”
The next morning the Martinezes would board a bus that would take them on an 18-hour trip to Arkansas. Jobs and hopes for a more promising future awaited them. Heidi spent the last day packing and discarding items so that their baggage would be light. Joe spent his time pacing nervously around the camp, inspecting the “bathroom” and waste recycling system he cobbled together to make sure they were working.
He chatted with other residents and reminded them that they must continue to pick up trash and keep the grounds clean. He reminded them to be respectful of each other and offered last words of advice. Joe Martinez, 40, grew up in San Angelo. His wasn't a perfect childhood, but his life was moving along pretty well until about two years ago, he said.
“Nobody ever grows up dreaming about becoming homeless,” said Joe, who for years had a stable job installing flooring. “I had a great boss, but he ended up getting triple bypass surgery and his son took over the business.
“We butted heads immediately. I finally quit.”
Joe thought he would find another job. When that didn't happen, he began doing odd jobs — mowing lawns, building fences, installing new floors at people's homes. Eventually, the opportunities dwindled, the money ran out and the bills went unpaid. When Joe lost his home, he moved to a tent city elsewhere in San Angelo. Heidi, who had married Joe a couple months before he lost everything, joined him.
“I was raised in a good home,” Joe said. “I was raised to be responsible and believe that if you work hard and carry your own weight, good things will happen.”
That's not what happened, he said.
When the Martinezes arrived, another homeless resident, Dustin Halvorson, had already set up a tent. Another couple, Billy Jack McMeekin and girlfriend Vera Kent, were preparing to leave.
“Billy Jack is a legend among the homeless in San Angelo,” Joe Martinez said. “He was like the godfather. If you needed help, advice — anything — you just had to ask Jack and Vera.”
McMeekin and Kent last fall relocated to Corpus Christi, where he found a job and the couple became engaged. McMeekin declined to comment for this story. When they left, they appointed Joe and Heidi as the new camp leaders. Other residents listened to Joe, whose muscular stature and no-nonsense speaking style can be intimidating, said Halvorson, who became good friends with the couple.
Many residents quickly bonded with the Martinezes, who took the time to listen to residents' problems and concerns. Sometimes they just needed a little encouragement or a “kick in the butt,” Joe said.
San Angelo police began cracking down on vagrancy this past spring. They stopped allowing the homeless to sleep on park benches or live in abandoned houses and buildings. That led to tent cities popping up around the city, Joe said.
“Initially we tried to set up by some docks, but we were kicked out by the city,” Joe said. “They kicked us out of every place we tried to hide.”
Eventually, the group realized that if they set up at their current site, which is state land, local police did not have the authority to make them leave, Joe said. The standoff ended when Joe and San Angelo police Chief Frank Carter sat down to talk about the situation. Carter offered to try to help the people at Camp Hope by working with local social service agencies and faith-based organizations to provide services to the homeless.
Carter also made arrangements so the people at Camp Hope could bag their garbage and place it near the expressway every Friday, where trash haulers collect it. The arrangement encouraged the residents in the camp to keep their site clean.
In return, Carter made it clear that the city would be passing an ordinance that would give them the authority to force the residents of the tent city to vacate the premises. The San Angelo City Council on Tuesday voted to approve the new ordinance, which will become effective on June 1. Neither Carter nor city officials are saying whether they will forcibly remove any homeless residents still at the site on June 1 or if they will let them stay there and continue trying to connect them to services.
“I was trying to fight for something that I thought was a good cause,” Joe said. “Nobody has the right to tell somebody you can't live somewhere and survive.
After Joe and Heidi became homeless, Joe's brother-in-law offered him a job at the construction company he works for in Arkansas. Pride and a sense of obligation to make sure his “family” at Camp Hope would be treated with respect by the city prevented Joe from immediately taking the job offer. Two months ago, he accepted.
“I needed to make sure that everyone here was taken care of before we left,” Joe said. “I still have reservations about taking the job. But Heidi has backed me up for the whole time. We've suffered a lot of pain together during the past year.
“I want to do this because I know it will make her happy.”
Before Joe left he sat down with Reggie Felton, who took over as the camp leader. He told Felton that he needed to make clear to all new residents that excessive drug use and confrontations with other residents would not be tolerated. Felton, whose slight build isn't as physically imposing as Martinez, takes his duties seriously. If someone becomes unruly or violent, he calls Chief Carter, who dispatches officers to remove the troublemakers.
When Joe and Heidi announced they would be leaving, the news was greeted with cheers and well wishes by some of the camp's residents. The news deeply upset others. One resident went on a drinking binge that evening and ended up in jail — never getting the chance to see say a final goodbye. After the Martinezes left, Halvorson became depressed and isolated himself for several weeks. Joe was in a philosophical mood the morning of his departure. Everyone else in the camp was still sleeping as he and Heidi gathered their belongings.
“Everything in life either builds or breaks you,” Joe said. “You can only help people so far. But they have to be willing to change.
“I'm going to miss this bunch, though. We're kind of like the Brady Bunch, we just use a lot more swear words.”
Three weeks later, Joe called Felton, who put his phone on speaker so others in the camp could say hi and listen. Martinez told the group that he was going to try and see if he could get some of them jobs so they could join him in Arkansas.
“What can I say,” Joe told Felton. “We're having the greatest time of our lives. Everything is going well.”