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Distrust, mental health disorders are barriers for homeless vets in Durango

At least 120 displaced veterans live in La Plata County
Veterans from clockwise, Larry Jelinek, Greg Dotson, William Brooks, Butch Crim, Skip Ferguson and John Jerrett hold a meeting Thursday at the La Plata County Veterans Outreach Center. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Self-worth, mental illness and a distrust in domestic society are the biggest barriers veterans face when it comes to reintegrating into “normal” lifestyles, according to those who offer support services to veterans in Durango. Most of them just want to be left alone.

The Veterans Outreach Office of La Plata County is asking for all the support it can get to continue providing food, clothing and access to other services for unhoused veterans in the area.

The agency confirmed Thursday it will receive an $18,000-plus donation for operational expenses, the first donation of its kind since 2018, said Rockling Scott with the VOC.

The donation came from the United Methodist Church’s Summit Church in Durango, said William Brooks, commander of the Disabled American Veterans Silver San Juan Chapter #48.

“We have been very, very frugal,” Scott said. “Put it this way, if we had not gotten this grant we would have had only about six months left of having the doors open and we would have had to have sold our space.”

Brooks’ fellow board members said the donation is good news.

To help

Rockling Scott, who helps as a driver with transportation services for the Veterans Outreach Office of La Plata County, said those interested in helping the organization can call her directly at (970) 317-5718.

The small center supplies clothing and food and can help people access health and treatment services, but community support is sorely missed, and more storage is needed, Brooks said.

The nonprofit Neighbors in Need Alliance that performed La Plata County’s Unhoused Count and Survey released in July determined that at least 400 homeless people live in La Plata County. At least 120 of those people are veterans, according to the VOC.

Skip Ferguson, a VOC board member, is angry with the city of Durango and La Plata County for closing the Purple Cliffs unmanaged camp and a lack of action to support the displaced homeless community.

But he also says residents at Purple Cliffs should have taken responsibility for their imprint on the land there.

He said someone needs to hold the homeless accountable with weekly check-ins. And accessible mental health services, which the VOC board says are lacking in Durango, are essential to support for the homeless veteran community.

“When you’re living up there on that mountain and you have manic depression and anxiety disorders, there’s only one place you’re going to go and that’s down,” Brooks said.

Veteran William Brooks, commander of the Disabled American Veterans Silver San Juan Chapter #48, speaks during a meeting Thursday at the La Plata County Veterans Outreach Center. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Veteran John Jerrett speaks during a meeting Thursday at the La Plata County Veterans Outreach Center. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Brooks said there’s a “fine line” between enabling and helping someone who distrusts society and prefers the streets.

“They may have a plethora of needs, but what will help motivate them forward into something functional or at least get their life on course – maybe it isn’t staying in Durango,” he said.

Brooks was homeless in 2014 and said “it was a very difficult time.”

He said it took finding self-worth to eventually find housing.

“We have some guys that have been down, down, down, down,” he said. “They’ve been disappointed. They’ve failed, whatever. They are disillusioned with the system. And they’ve lost faith in the whole thing and then they start to lose faith in themselves.”

Skip said the VA’s office is short-staffed and lacking proper funding.

David, a homeless veteran of the Persian Gulf War who declined to disclose his last name, said many homeless vets in Durango served in Afghanistan.

“They still have itchy skin,” he said.

“The easiest way I can explain it is, I’m not really a good guy,” he said. “But I knew a guy who read the Bible everyday. He got blown to bits. A guy that had a family and kids, he’s never going to be put together right. It took me 10 years to get over that.”

He said veterans are too often treated with pills instead of therapy or other mental health services.

“One NFL football player makes as much as they spend on education in a state,” he said. “You can pay this guy $40 million but you can’t get books or a building without lead or pay your teachers or anything? But he needs a raise and we’ve gotta get 10 more of him?”

Brooks said it’s hard for members of the homeless community to access professional mental health care.

For the Veterans Outreach Center of La Plata County, the agency could use more coats, Scott said.

Coats, pants, boots, sleeping bags and nonperishable foods are all welcome at the VOC – but please, no more toothpaste – David said.

Williams and Scott also said donated coats are in need. In addition, the VOC is looking for someone who is willing to donate a small storage unit to keep supplies, including crutches and wheelchairs, in order to collect more items to lend to people in need.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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