A shift in attitude toward homelessness became tangible, at least in part, on Tuesday when Durango City Council adopted a plan with concrete goals and spending priorities to help people living homeless access community services.
An often split City Council offered unanimous support to adopt the City of Durango and La Plata County Strategic Plan on Homelessness, a proverbial road map drafted by consultants with the help of more than two dozen community members.
The adoption is a drastic shift from a City Council that in late 2018 received a scathing letter from the Colorado ACLU criticizing the city’s practices and policies related to homelessness. The nonprofit legal group specifically wrote in its August 2018 letter that, “In recent years, city leaders have made concerted efforts to push unhoused people out of public places, out of sight and mind, and to criminalize their very existence.”
Mayor Melissa Youssef said Tuesday, “I am almost overwhelmed as to where we’ve come, even though I know that we are really at the beginning.”
Specific to the city of Durango, the plan offers a cost estimate for establishing a center to direct people living homeless to services – an estimated $170,000 expense. The plan also includes a proposal to establish a permanent camp for people living homeless, but price estimates cannot be determined until a site is chosen.
Assistant City Manager Kevin Hall said the city may need to revisit the 11 sites it identified as a possible location for people living homeless to stay. The plan adopted by City Council does not commit city funds to projects, but rather identifies “real expectations for funding,” he said.
“It’s clear there is a green light to move forward on implementing these things,” he said. “It will take a capacity of time and individuals participating to bring forward a well thought-out, thorough and vetted proposal.”
The city of Durango and La Plata County paid The Athena Group, a consulting organization, $70,000 in joint sales tax to devise the plan. Consultants drafted the document with the help of the Planning and Action Team on Homelessness, a group of community members including local public officials, health care workers and a number of people with a vested, nonprofessional interest in the well-being of local homeless communities.
The plan provides “things we can measure and targets,” Marsha Porter-Norton told council. The city has come a long way in its attitude toward homelessness, she said, but adopting the plan is just the beginning.
“A couple of years ago, it honestly felt hopeless to me. It felt like there was a lot of blaming and hand-wringing. And this feels like a new day to me. We got there with a lot of help,” she said.
But the change in attitude toward homelessness is not the result of political will, said City Councilor Dean Brookie. Rather, it’s the coalition of a number of organizations and a comprehensive plan for how each agency can help that has made the difference, he said.
The coalition of agencies and organizations is “something to celebrate,” said City Councilor Chris Bettin. And while people living homeless may have suffered while the plan was being drafted, Bettin said, “that suffering was not in vain.”
“It was necessary to reach this juncture, we have a plan supported by all these various entities,” he said. “That is the critical piece we were missing before, that coalition element.”
The city doesn’t have to wait until next year’s budget to appropriate money – it already has about $40,000 in joint sales tax revenue shared with the county that hasn’t been spoken for, said City Councilor Kim Baxter.
The county has also been clear that the designated site for sleeping on La Posta Road (County Road 213) called Purple Cliffs is a temporary solution, said City Councilor Barbara Noseworthy.
“The work still has to continue, and hold us accountable to get the money,” she said.
A previous version of this story erred in saying Marsha Porter-Norton is a member of the PATH group. She is not a member.