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Durango homeless camp may relocate by April

City, county focus on two sites to accommodate campers
Local officials want to move a homeless camp west of Durango city limits to a new location that is less prone to wildfire. They are considering two sites: one near the Centennial Center in Bodo Industrial Park, and the other to an empty lot near Manna.

Local government officials are honing in on a new campground to temporarily house homeless residents, but potential tenants are concerned the small parcel could disrupt privacy.

Durango and La Plata County officials are considering two locations for the camp – a 1-acre lot behind the Centennial Center in Bodo Industrial Park and a 1-acre lot off Avenida del Sol in west Durango, near Manna’s soup kitchen.

Homeless residents currently camp in an undeveloped area north of the Tech Center and just west of Durango city limits. Officials worry it is a potential fire danger, especially during the summer. The sprawling location had about 45 campsites this summer, with one to four campers per campsite.

Officials want to identify a new location by April. They set an aggressive schedule to identify and establish a new site to allow law enforcement to enforce camping bans in areas that are prone to wildfire and do not have proper sanitation.

“The whole point of this is to be able to keep people from camping where it’s not safe or appropriate,” said County Commissioner Julie Westendorff.

Officials selected the two sites from a list of 11 possible locations at a meeting this week. They settled on the two sites because they are closest to services and would help eliminate conflict between homeless residents and neighborhoods near western city limits.

Many of the other sites had major flaws. For example, a site near the dog park is in a floodplain and cannot be accessed by vehicles, according to city documents.

The top two sites will be evaluated more extensively this winter. Staff will determine costs to develop the sites and capacity of the sites, among other factors, said Assistant City Manager Kevin Hall.

City and county officials are worried about increasing fire danger by allowing camping north of Tech Center.

“I don’t want to see a Lightner Creek (fire) up in the Crestview area,” said City Councilor Sweetie Marbury.

Moving from a dispersed camping environment to one that is more enclosed may not appeal to some homeless residents.

Jessica Hill, who serves in a leadership role at the current campground, said the camping community needs to be involved in the process of creating a new site in order for residents to accept it.

“It’s a really good idea, if it’s done well,” she said.

But putting tents close together will eliminate some privacy, which could be a concern, she said. Providing shrubs or other screening devices could help alleviate those concerns, she said.

It’s a model that likely would not work for everyone, especially those who prefer to be alone, Hill said.

Naomi Raine, who has been homeless for five years, said she is adamantly opposed to the new camp.

“How would you like it if you were pulled from your home?” she said.

She has been committed to the existing camp and community, working to keep it clean and helping with the construction of a new trail that leads to the camp.

Earlier this week, officials weighed some of the pros and cons of both sites, but decided against choosing one without more information.

The site near Manna makes sense because it is shielded from town and it is near social services, said Councilor Chris Bettin.

However, the site is next to land that Housing Solutions for the Southwest would like use for permanent supportive housing.

“We are looking at single, small units to meet the chronically homeless need,” said Housing Solutions Executive Director Elizabeth Salkind.

Some officials expressed concern that putting a temporary camp near the site could hurt an application that will be submitted this summer for low-income tax credits that would fund the new housing.

“I don’t want to muck up Elizabeth’s vision for housing,” Marbury said.

The other site, behind Centennial Plaza, is flat and accessible by vehicle via County Road 210. Vehicles aren’t able to access some of the other sites that were being considered, including the existing camping area.

“I think the Centennial site will solve the immediate problem,” Marbury said.

The city stores some equipment on the proposed Centennial site, but it could be moved to nearby county land, according to city documents.

The property is just under two miles from Manna, but food could be delivered to the site by Meals on Wheels, city documents said.

City Councilor Melissa Youssef pointed out the Centennial site could be highly visible to those driving to Lake Nighthorse once the lake opens, which is expected to be this spring, and it could bring more pedestrians to an area with industrial traffic, which could be a safety issue.

City and county officials plan to involve homeless residents and the greater community once more details become available.

City and county officials plan to meet again in February to discuss possible sites.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

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