La Plata commissioners heard an abundance of public comments Tuesday before voting unanimously to fulfill a funding request from Community Compassion Outreach to reimburse expenses of up to $11,600 for the operation of a warming shelter for people experiencing homelessness.
The nonprofit first requested that the city of Durango and the county fund the shelter using money from the joint sales tax. However, the city rejected the request on Nov. 15 in a 4-1 vote, citing concerns of creating a hub of activity for homeless people in a downtown neighborhood.
Instead of using revenue from the joint sales tax, the county will fund the shelter using money from the American Rescue Plan Act. The federal legislation provided $10.9 million to the county, which now sits in its general fund. Commissioners committed $1 million of that sum to address homelessness, from which the requested funds will be drawn.
Commissioners indicated support for funding the request during board discussion time on Nov. 23. After vocal neighbors came out strongly against the shelter at the city’s meeting, Commissioner Matt Salka called on those in the community who support the project to speak up if they wanted the board to fund the project.
And speak up they did. More than 40 people attended Tuesday’s business meeting and the county commissioners heard nearly an hour of public comment, primarily from community members who supported the project.
Only five people offered in-person comments against funding the project in addition to the 14 emails opposing the resolution. But more than 10 spoke out in favor of it, some choked by tears, in addition to 52 emails expressing support.
Neighbors of the shelter have vocalized fears that it might draw crime into their neighborhood. To assuage the concerns, CCO Executive Director Donna Mae Baukat told the board that the shelter has strict policies that require volunteers to refer intoxicated people to recovery services and is in the process of installing a security camera. One Durango resident cautioned that the policies intended to keep the shelter’s clientele safe might jeopardize the safety of the community.
“When you toss birdseed, expect all the birds to feed. It’s not just the mourning doves and the peaceful finches who are hungry,” said Karen Anesi, who said she was reading a statement on behalf of another neighbor. “You invite the (grackles) and the jays, the magpies and the raptors too. Plan A serves the model client, those without homes through no fault of their own. It’s the angry birds that will be left behind in the neighborhood.”
CCO is already operating the warming shelter from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays at Durango Christian Church near East Third Avenue and 11th Street, and volunteers report seven to 15 visitors per day. Baukat has said the shelter will continue to operate with or without the funding. CCO has received two small grants as well as over $9,000 in donations since the city’s vote to deny funding.
“If I don’t have your funding, it’s going to be my husband and I. It’s going to be the two grants ... or its going to be my Social Security money,” she told the board. “I don’t care whether or not people don’t want to support this or do. That isn’t the point. I am doing what I believe.”
In a statement just before the vote, Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton said the county should not allow such an outcome.
“We can do better as a community than having somebody that stepped forward to do this fund it out of their own Social Security,” Porter-Norton said. “That's completely unacceptable to me.”
In addition to providing a warm space to rest, the shelter provides a place to charge electronic devices, receive mail and eat a meal. Volunteers are also trying to help teach visitors how to use computers, find employment and get into affordable housing.
“It’s a place where there’s a person you can talk to if you’re having mental issues or any other kind of issues and they can point you in directions where you can receive the proper help that you absolutely need,” said Paul Foiles, a recent arrival to Durango who has struggled to find housing. “... I really fell in love with this town. Where I come from, there’s nothing heard of like this. It’s just the love of Durango that has brought me to want to be an actual member of this community.”
Tamara Hoyer, a resident of East Third Avenue near the shelter, noted that in her experience, tourists and intoxicated bar patrons have caused commotion in the neighborhood, not people experiencing homelessness.
“The homeless in this community have become a catchall, like Donna Mae said, a garbage bucket for all of our fears, no matter what they are,” Hoyer said. “Break-ins are concerning. People have come to our door, slept on our porch, and, using informed humanity, it has not been a big scene, or frightening or threatening to me.”
Hoyer’s husband, Mike Todt, expressed disappointment in the city’s humanitarian response.
“I used to think we were a progressive liberal compassionate city,” he said. “I don't believe it anymore.”
Porter-Norton emphasized that the county’s duty to protect the health, safety and welfare if its residents extends to all residents, both homeless and those with homes near the shelter. She urged CCO to work closely with neighbors to mitigate the shelter’s impact, but said that the shelter’s role in facilitating transitions out of homelessness was too important to deny the funding.
“The faith-based community specifically was asked in 2018 to come forth with solutions,” she said. “... You did, you are, that’s what you’re doing. And so it would be so hypocritical for us to say ‘Thank you for coming forth now, we just have to have this perfect location which we haven’t been able to find for anything.’”
As the discussion came to an end, Commissioner Salka told Baukat that it was now time for CCO to prove itself.
“You have a lot of work ahead of you,” Salka said. “You have a lot to prove.”