Durango has talked about addressing homelessness for years. Many of Durango’s seven City Council candidates are pushing for talk to turn into action.
The candidates are running for three open seats on City Council during the April 6 election. Six would be newcomers to the council, and one, Melissa Youssef, is wrapping up her fourth year in office. If elected, they will jump into addressing homelessness by negotiating intergovernmental agreements, expanding collaborations with community organizations and navigating public feedback.
Durango has made some progress in providing housing opportunities to people experiencing homelessness or living with insecure housing.
The city and La Plata County approved the Strategic Plan on Homelessness in 2018, which was supported by a host of community partners. The city has approved funding to help Manna, a Durango soup kitchen, create a resource navigation center – a goal in the strategic plan. Espero Apartments is offering supportive housing to certain populations, including people experiencing homelessness, another planning goal.
But the city has also been rebuked for some of its housing policies. In May 2018, Durango City Council unanimously passed an ordinance that banned sitting and lying on sidewalks, curbs or other public areas.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado issued a statement saying sit-lie ordinances, including Durango’s, are “absurd and indefensible” attempts to criminalize homelessness and poverty.
After Durango closed its only sanctioned homeless camp in summer 2018, the ACLU rebuked the city’s camping ban, saying it was unconstitutional. Durango stopped issuing citations in September 2018.
For years, the city has tried to find a permanent campsite location. In 2019, Durango and La Plata County created a designated temporary campsite at Purple Cliffs on La Posta Road (County Road 213), and the city committed to finding an alternative site. Each potential location, however, prompts a swell of public pushback and progress grinds to a halt.
City Council candidates differed about how they would balance public feedback and choosing a new location. Some prioritized making a decision on a location, while others aimed to find the best solution for all.
If elected, most City Council candidates said they wanted to see faster progress on the issue. They said multiple solutions were needed. When it came to naming specific strategies, several pointed to continuing with the 2018 joint strategic plan.
When Youssef ran for City Council in 2017, she said the city needed to make progress on homelessness immediately: The city should work with nonprofits in town, create a long-term plan and establish permanent supportive housing.
While running for re-election, she said her work is not done but the community has made progress on its collaborations and strategic planning. The city is in the process of creating an intergovernmental agreement between the city and county about management of Purple Cliffs and identifying a second, formally managed campsite.
“To me, the issue of homelessness is going to be an ongoing priority for the city for the foreseeable future,” said Youssef, who had a 30-year career in finance. “We’ll never solve it, we’ll never end it. We can only continue to address it.”
She was also serving when the city received the ACLU rebukes and faltered in its attempts to identify another campsite.
When asked how she would balance pushback and finding a site if re-elected, Youssef pointed to the city’s plan to reconsider all of its location options, then rank those sites based on different criteria. (The city has already considered and reconsidered some of these options.)
When asked how she would rank public feedback related to other criteria, she said, “It has to be considered in conjunction with others. It is an important consideration.”
“That’s the best way I can say it,” Youssef said.
If re-elected, her role would be to work with community organizations that are trying to address homelessness, she said.
“This is an issue we address as an entire community together,” Youssef said.
If elected, Harrison Wendt, a youth camp coordinator, said he would focus on bold structural change to support people experiencing homelessness.
He said he would advocate for repealing Durango’s no-sit, no-lie ordinance. The ordinance is still in effect, but it is enforced at the discretion of the police officer performing the investigation, according to the Durango Police Department.
The 2018 strategic plan addressed homelessness, but not its root causes, like an insufficient living wage and the lack of behavioral health resources, he said.
He supported using the Robert E. DeNier Youth Service Center as a shelter and advocated for a sustainable mobile crisis team featuring police and clinicians. The strategic plan also needed to be accomplished on a shorter timeline.
“We don’t have five years to figure it out. We need to figure it out now,” Wendt said. “There is land to use ... the problem is community pushback.”
He said the pushback comes from community members who are “privileged and living in multimillion dollar homes who are scared of having other human beings who are less fortunate than them living near them.”
“We just need to put some of the differences aside, and maybe just not please the community, and say, ‘These people need our help, and we’re going to help them,’” he said.
When it comes to selecting a permanent camp, Lisa McCorry said the city would have to assess the best solution for all.
“There will be opposition no matter what location is selected,” said McCorry, who works as a landscaper. “Without a designated campsite, it allows for illegal camping. You can’t enforce it if there’s not a designated site. That really affects our trails, open spaces and their users. That has an effect on locals and our visitors and tourists, so it does need to be addressed.”
McCorry first pointed out that there are many reasons a person experiences homelessness, and stigma around homelessness would need to be addressed.
For people who want to remain outdoors, a basic camp would serve many of their needs. For people trying to attain secure housing, she suggested using a vulnerability assessment tool and getting appropriate support to them – even if it’s just helping them acquire a form of identification.
“There’s so many barriers that prevent people from emerging from these situations,” McCorry said. “I would just like to see more movement on the issue.”
Frank Lockwood said his top action item on homelessness would be to keep making progress on the 2018 strategic plan.
“I like the plan that was put together by the Athena group,” said Lockwood, retired after a 30-year career as an attorney. It balances the needs of people experiencing homelessness and the community while incorporating best practices from all over the United States, he said.
If he is elected and the council still needs to find an alternative permanent campsite, Lockwood said he would not be weighed down by public pushback.
“Once you’re elected, you’ve been elected for your judgment and hopefully your integrity,” Lockwood said. “If you start down the road of putting your wet finger in the air and trying to see which way the wind is blowing before you make a decision, you’re heading down the wrong path.”
He said councilors can’t always please everyone and only need a majority vote to keep moving forward one step at a time.
“What I’m saying is, I’m not that interested in whether I please or don’t please my voter base because it’s so varied,” Lockwood said. “As a result, I’m committed to solving this problem.”
One action Seth Furtney would take if elected: supporting the city-county subcommittee created to address the needs of the homeless community.
“No one really wants this challenge, but we’re facing it. It’s really the manifestation of national policies,” he said, referring to health care, income inequality and other challenges. “It’s an unfortunate situation, but where we are now is not the solution. ... The answer is going to be a tortured one, where everyone will have to agree this is as good as we’re going to get.”
Furtney, a former engineering contracts manager and commercial property manager, did not think the city is the best entity to address homelessness.
The city should contribute to the solution, but first, it should listen to the suggestions from community organizations that already provide assistance to people experiencing homelessness or insecure housing, such as Manna, the Durango Food Bank and the Neighbors in Need Alliance, he said.
“You have them tell you what they need, and then you, hopefully as a city and community, say, ‘Yep, we’re willing to give you that,’” Furtney said.
For Jessika Buell, a business owner, the permanent camp location issue is simple: The community agreed to create a permanent camp in the strategic plan and the city agreed to find a location in 2019.
Now, the city needs to update its list of potential locations, find the least impactful location and “then execute,” she said.
“We have to make a difficult decision, and we’re going to make some people mad,” Buell said.
Once the city identifies locations, then it can work with community members to ease concerns that arise. But there won’t be a perfect solution, she said.
“I feel like there’s ways to ease concerns, but we have to make a hard decision on the location first,” Buell said. “We have a great strategic plan, and I think it’s our job as City Council to make sure it’s executed.”
During his four-year term, Olivier Bosmans would focus on addressing homelessness using an integrated approach that would incorporate food, shelter, health care, substance use and mental health support, he said.
“If I’m elected on the City Council, I would like to make more progress on actual projects and decisions,” said Bosmans, an international project manager and environmental consultant. “There is not one solution that solves the whole problem.”
When asked to give examples of the programs he would want to see, he again referred to food, shelter and health support programs. He also said a study was done five or 10 years ago and brought before City Council, but not much action was taken.
Regarding the homeless camp decision, there needs to be faster progress, he said.
“There’s always going to be a part of the community that will not be happy based on the final location,” Bosmans said. He said the final solution might consist of “multiple choices and would definitely involve the county.”
“This problem is not going away, and we need to provide shelter. So we need to make more progress,” he said.