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City, county to spend $70,000 on strategic plan to address homelessness

Plan to gather data about needs, outline short-term steps
La Plata County and the city of Durango are jointly funding a $70,000 strategic plan to address homelessness in Durango.

After years of public controversy about how to deal with homelessness in town, the city of Durango and La Plata County have hired a consulting firm to help officials and community members tackle the issue.

The firm was hired to develop a practical and scalable plan that will address urgent community health and safety needs associated with homelessness among other issues, according to the contract.

“I am counting on our consultants to come in with a broader perspective and some best practices,” said La Plata County Manager Chuck Stevens.

The county’s $70,000 contract with The Athena Group, an Olympia-based company, was finalized Wednesday, he said. The firm specializes in public policy development.

The city and county jointly funded the contract, but the county is the fiscal agent.

Homeless residents have been camping on public land around Durango for years, raising concerns among residents about fire danger and public safety. However, campers often have nowhere else to stay because the community does not have a low-barrier shelter.

La Plata County commissioners and city councilors have explored various options for addressing homelessness and camping near town. But last year, officials decided they needed outside help and set aside funding from the joint city-county sales tax for the long-term plan, Stevens said.

“We didn’t have a vision or an end state as to what success looked like,” Stevens said. “... The more we studied the problem, we realized we needed a long-term vision.”

The strategic plan is expected to be finished by the end of the year and detail actions the community can take within two years, according to the approved contract.

“We want to have positive impacts on the community as soon as we can,” he said.

The contract does not detail a specific problem associated with homelessness the plan intends to tackle. But it does detail steps the consultants will take. The firm is required to gather data about the homeless community, conduct interviews with stakeholders and homeless residents and determine what services are provided to homeless residents and gaps in those services. The consultants must also establish a working group to help draft the plan.

The Athena Group must also make recommendations about:

How the working group could function after the plan is finished.Hiring a homeless issues coordinator and a job description for a coordinator.Cost estimates for any action steps recommended. Data that could be used to evaluate action steps.Athena Group Principal Meagan Picard participated in a meeting of faith-based organizations interested in addressing homelessness last week and explained her firm’s approach.

Consultants will help residents hear each other and work together to create a plan that is driven by the whole community, she said.

“It is not possible for one entity to solve everything,” she said.

Picard expects to visit the community monthly for six months to work on the plan, and two other consultants currently live in Durango, she said in an email.

The firm’s staff also has experience working on homelessness in other communities, Picard said.

Consultants worked with public officials in Honolulu to establish a shuttle service to allow homeless residents to access shelters in remote areas, offering hundreds of people an alternative to sleeping in the streets and beaches around tourist areas. The shuttle services also allow homeless residents to access health care services, schools, grocery stores and other services, Picard said.

In Denver, the firm’s consultants helped develop zoning changes to allow for a greater variety of affordable housing options.

The proposed changes have not been approved yet, but recommendations in development would allow more unrelated people to live together. The proposal would also allow for smaller homeless shelters to be established close to transit and social services, she said.

An organizer with faith-based groups working to address homelessness, Caroline Kinser, said she was pleased The Athena Group was hired because the plan could be used to apply for grants in the future.

“It’s obvious we need this,” she said.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

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