A local homeless advocacy group’s request to Durango City Council for financial support of $11,600 for a warming shelter established at Durango Christian Church was denied last week.
The requested money would have been used for rent and utilities for the temporary warming shelter, which was established to support the city’s homeless population during wintertime and is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays at Durango Christian Church at 255 E. 11th St.
During a public participation segment of the Tuesday City Council meeting, the council listened to concerns and objections from residents about having a warming shelter open twice weekly and only during daylight hours.
Some residents said funding the warming shelter at the church would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state. Other speakers said the proximity of the warming shelter to neighborhood schools endangers children, invites break-ins into residences and otherwise puts residents at risk.
Durango resident Lynn Schaller, who said she is an attorney advocate for rights of marginalized people, encouraged City Council to approve use of joint city and county sales tax funds to aid Community Compassion Outreach. She said the nonprofit has done a lot of good work for the homeless over the last few years.
“It was 12 degrees this morning,” she said. “I was cold in my ‘sleeping bag coat’ and I can only imagine what it’s like to be sleeping outside. They (the warming shelter) provide hot food, hot drinks and a community for people to gather together.”
She said a warming shelter is a humanitarian effort “so that people don’t die.”
“I think you may remember in years past that we have had several people who have died from exposure,” she said. “And so this gives them an opportunity to literally warm up and have some community.”
Durango resident Ollie Powers took the opposite stance.
“I don’t feel we need a warming shelter. I feel that we’ve been really good to the homeless here in town,” she said. “We have a soup kitchen. I don’t feel a warming center anywhere in town is needed.”
She said she has seen homeless people camping along Roosa Avenue for the last five to six years, some of them staying there “for weeks at a time.”
“We have called the police department about some of them,” she said. “My daughter, who grew up here in Durango, came a few weeks ago and was running the river trail and she came back and said, ‘What is going on in town? What is with all these homeless people everywhere?’
“This is not a safe town anymore,” she said.
City Council voted 4-1 to deny funding for the warming shelter. Mayor Barbara Noseworthy was the only City Council member to vote against denying funding. She said she supports Community Compassion Outreach’s idea of hosting a warming shelter at Durango Christian Church and she supports providing financial aid to the cause.
City staff and City Council members emphasized at several points that the city has no say as to whether Durango Christian Church hosts the warming shelter and that City Council’s vote was strictly related to providing funding for the project.
Scott Shine, director of community development, said the warming center does not violate any land-use codes or other city policies. And, because funding the warming shelter has nothing to do with funding explicitly religious activities, the question of separation of church and state is moot.
City staff members said the warming shelter is in effect no different from regular church activities such as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Cub Scouts meetings or any other communal events.
Councilor Olivier Bosmans said the nonprofit’s and the church’s intent to aid the homeless is a worthwhile cause, but the location is unsuitable.
He said the warming shelter’s capacity of 50 people per day is “quite a bit for a neighborhood” and he wants to see more research about what activities can and can’t be done at that neighborhood location.
Councilor Jessika Buell said City Council needs to “find a balance” between fiscal responsibility to taxpayers and helping unhoused residents survive in Durango. She sees no problem in funding a nonprofit and said faith-based organizations would have more success in supporting the homeless than others.
But, she agreed with Bosmans and other council members that Durango Christian Church’s location is not ideal for a warming shelter because of how close it is to schools, businesses and the downtown area.
“I know it’s a balance and I know there’s never going to be an easy answer, and no matter where the warming huts go we’re probably going to get people that don’t support it, but I think there’s better locations than this,” she said.
Councilor Melissa Youssef said she is worried about “inadvertent consequences” of supporting a warming shelter at Durango Christian Church.
Councilor Kim Baxter said she doesn’t support a warming center in any Durango neighborhood, especially one near a school.
“I would support it if it were not in that situation. For example, on an empty piece of land in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “... I support the concept. But I don’t support it in any neighborhood in our community. And so I would not support funding it.”
Noseworthy, the only councilor in support of funding the warning shelter, said many residents support helping the homeless, but she is unaware of any neighborhoods willing to take in the unhoused community.
After hearing public safety concerns expressed by residents and her fellow council members, Noseworthy said she shares a neighborhood with Durango Christian Church and the warming shelter.
“I walk that street every day,” she said. “... For two days, this organization (the church) is letting people who often go unnoticed be seen, have a place to come together, to build some community – and we have to start somewhere.”