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Durango considers temporary evacuation shelter for homeless residents

Camp would be located near Greenmount Cemetery

Durango City Council could open a new, temporary evacuation camp for homeless residents who have been displaced by Stage 3 fire restrictions.

The camp would be located on city open space adjacent to the social services campus below Greenmount Cemetery. City officials estimate the shelter would serve 30 to 40 homeless campers displaced by Stage 3 fire restrictions, which La Plata County passed June 12 and prohibit encampments, such as the now-closed homeless camp, on county lands.

The city will consider an emergency ordinance June 26, or earlier, to open the temporary, sleep-only camp near the cemetery.

The new camp would be open only to homeless residents who were dislocated because of the closure of the La Plata County homeless camp, which was shuttered by the Stage 3 fire restrictions.

“At this point, this becomes a humanitarian effort,” Councilor Dean Brookie said of moving quickly despite an array of legal, financial, health and bureaucratic complications that might block opening a temporary shelter near the cemetery.

City Council discussed the issue at a public meeting Monday night.

The 416 Fire emergency shelter for evacuees at Escalante Middle School closed Monday, and most people returned to their homes. However, those who are homeless now have few options for places to stay.

Public lands managed by the San Juan National Forest, Bureau of Land Management, La Plata County and city of Durango are closed because of high fire danger.

As a temporary fix, the city of Durango will allow homeless residents to continue to use outdoor facilities at the Escalante Middle School emergency camp for another week.

Durango School District 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger said Tuesday after the school board meeting that the district has allowed the displaced homeless residents to stay at Escalante Middle School through Monday. Residents will have to sign an agreement not to drink or smoke on school grounds, he said.

A few homeless residents have been asked to leave because of problematic behavior, but Snowberger said the school district doesn’t want to penalize the entire group by ending the camp because of the actions of a few.

City Manager Ron LeBlanc said he will be in conversation with Snowberger about the day-to-day camping status of the homeless residents living at Escalante Middle School.

Police have been called to the Escalante camp, and LeBlanc said the current arrangement at the school is untenable.

“It’s not fair to 9-R. They’re doing something good for the community, and they are getting stung by bad behavior,” he said.

For the past couple of years, many homeless residents in the Durango area have stayed at a makeshift and technically illegal campsite just west of city limits on property owned by La Plata County.

However, as a result of high fire danger, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office closed the dispersed campsite in May and moved people to a barren acre of ground, also located west of Durango.

But that site, too, was closed last week when La Plata County enacted Stage 3 fire restrictions. About 55 people living in the temporary camp were given an evacuation notice at 9 a.m. June 12.

Those people were told they would be treated no differently than any other evacuated resident and were given the option to stay at the evacuation shelter at Escalante Middle School. About 40 homeless people went to the shelter, aided by a bus that helped move their belongings.

Now that evacuations have been lifted for homeowners, the goal is to relocate homeless campers staying at the school as soon as feasible.

Stage 3 fire restrictions remain in place, which leaves homeless residents with no designated place to camp.

La Plata County was already planning to close its homeless campsite based on the city of Durango’s plan to open a camp by June 30 adjacent to the Durango Dog Park.

But the Dog Park site has elicited objections because it is on a former uranium mill used during the Manhattan Project.

The state health department has sent a letter to city officials recommending a complete health-risk assessment based on the radioactive materials that once existed at the location.

City officials have denied the possibility of any health risks, but City Council has agreed to test the Dog Park site for radon.

The city’s emergency ordinance, which would allow opening a temporary camp near the cemetery, would be in effect for 60 days and could be renewed for another 60 days.

The camp near the cemetery would give the city a couple of months to complete radon testing near the Dog Park. Campers using the temporary shelter near the cemetery would eventually be moved to the site adjacent to the Dog Park, if radon tests find it is safe.

Councilor Melissa Youssef said, “This is going to be difficult to manage in terms of time, energy and expertise. We’re going to need some help. On the other hand, we have people who need our help and our support.”

City Councilor Chris Bettin said opening a camping area adjacent to the Dog Park may have to occur before completion of radon testing if efforts to put together the temporary camp near the cemetery cannot be completed rapidly.

“If we can’t pull this off,” Bettin said of using the property near the cemetery for a temporary camp, “we may have to use that (the Dog Park) as a backup.”

In related camping news, LeBlanc said he will come to councilors with a request to hire six seasonal employees to patrol city open spaces to ensure homeless camping is not occurring on city land.

Currently, he said patrols are being conducted by city employees who are assigned to the Durango Dog Park and Lake Nighthorse, both of which are closed because of fire restrictions.

The personnel would be needed back at the Dog Park and Lake Nighthorse when they are reopened.

parmijo@durangoherald.com

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