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Durango homelessness council to pursue housing model used countrywide

Continuum of Care programs focus on community-supported solutions for unhoused
Juanita Johnson, who came to Durango homeless about three months ago, sits along Narrow Gauge Avenue on Friday soaking up the sun. Johnson traveled to the area from Farmington, where she also experienced homeless. She said Farmington is a dangerous place for the homeless, and Durango is like paradise by comparison. She sleeps wherever she can and didn’t stay at Purple Cliffs before its closure. Before the cold winter weather sets in, she would like to get a bus ticket to go to Phoenix where she has family, she said. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

A nonprofit is picking up the lead in finding a solution to sheltering Durango’s homeless community after the city’s four-year effort proved unsuccessful.

Coordinating Council on Homelessness will place an emphasis on providing transitional housing that bridges the gap to permanent housing.

Durango City Council met in a work session Tuesday to discuss how to approach the problem of homelessness moving forward. Several councilors said no results are being produced with the city and La Plata County leading the charge, and that having a third party assume leadership of the project is the best, or only, way to forge a path forward.

City Council tapped CCH with determining what or who that third party should be.

CCH was born from the city and La Plata County’s Strategic Plan on Homelessness. It decided Thursday to pursue a Continuum of Care model, an existing program required in every county by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said Sandhya Atkinson, facilitator for CCH and creator of Sagebrush Ltd. She said the model is supported by cities and counties across the country and focuses on providing housing for the unhoused.

The Continuum of Care model was one option; another was to create a homelessness authority, similar to a regional housing authority. That might work in the future, but a homeless authority requires a more complicated legal structure, Atkinson said. So the most efficient way to move forward on a solution for the unhoused is to take advantage of the Southwest Continuum of Care, an existing organization.

CCH is working on a job description and a funding request for a coordinator position for the Continuum of Care. That request will be presented to the city by the end of the year, she said.

“We think that will provide a lot more structure and forward momentum to be able to address the issue of homelessness and unhoused in our community,” she said.

Nonprofits cite lack of direction from city, county

Direction is something members of CCH said has been lacking from the city and the county. Both entities formed a strategic plan on homelessness that was approved in 2020; the plan lists a director position to provide oversight and action on the plan. But that position has never been funded, Atkinson said.

Sgt. Matt Webb, left, and Lt.Tom Cowing, both with the La Plata County Sheriffs Office, look over a homeless camp Thursday during their search for illegal campsites on county land north of the Durango Tech Center. The Coordinating Council on Homelessness formed by the city of Durango and the county decided to pursue a Continuum of Care model for finding a solution for the area’s unhoused. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Atkinson and Ann Morse, executive director at Manna soup kitchen and chairwoman of CCH, have both partly filled the role, but leadership was never really there, Atkinson said. The Continuum of Care coordinator position would finally fill that position.

“It did not seem as though the city was embracing the fact that the strategic plan is their strategic plan (city’s and county’s),” she said. “There’s a bit of a feeling that they want to hand it off to someone else to take care of.”

But on the other hand, City Council has myriad other issues and city projects to tend to, she said.

“I think that having a dedicated position for this will actually be able to bring forward solid policy recommendations to City Council that might be able to move the needle on this more effectively.”

Noseworthy said she doesn’t necessarily see City Council’s direction “in the same light” as Atkinson, and the council is trying to bolster entities with the right experience and know-how.

“If there’s one in the community that has the expertise to take this on, then the city (can be) a partner with them,” she said.

Other members of CCH have also expressed concern about lack of direction from the city.

Matt Lynn, Project Moxie director of community engagement, said in an interview with The Durango Herald in October that the nonprofit has “not given up on the idea of a managed community, but we’re going to need cooperation from the powers that be to make that happen.”

In a written statement to the Herald in October, Jenn Lopez, executive director of Project Moxie, said the nonprofit is supporting Manna with increasing its services for the displaced homeless residents of Purple Cliffs and is doing other resource development work involving safe parking, pallet shelters and motel conversions.

“We cannot, however, move any of these alternatives forward without support and cooperation from the city and county,” she said.

She said the Project Moxie team is concerned that law enforcement resources are being diverted to managing the unhoused and that there has been a lack of guidance to the homeless about “where they can rest or access basic sanitary services free from harassment.”

She also said the onset of winter-like weather poses a “life or death situation” to the unhoused.

“Although some former Purple Cliffs residents have been placed in hotels, this is only a short-term solution,” she said. “In 2019, the city and county funded and formally adopted a strategic plan for the homeless so that policies and solutions pertaining to this issue would be coordinated across the public and private sectors.”

Atkinson said Manna and the Collaborative Management Program have worked “tirelessly” to get families, people with disabilities and the elderly displaced from Purple Cliffs into hotels and motels. Their efforts have been successful in terms of an emergency solution, but hotels are more expensive than long-term rental housing.

Lt.Tom Cowing, left, and Sgt. Matt Webb, both with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, look for illegal campsites Thursday on county land north of the Durango Tech Center. Durango City Council gave direction to the Coordinating Council on Homelessness on Tuesday to look for a way to create “third-party leadership” to better address the issue of homelessness in the city and the county. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

She said Manna is the local provider for state-provided Emergency Solution Grants; the grants cover rent for families to move into long-term rental housing. One family was recently relocated from a hotel to rental housing in Bayfield.

And other CCH members, such as Axis Mental Health, Volunteers of America and Housing Solutions for the Southwest are “spread thin and strained” as a result of operating in a state of emergency to provide for the unhoused displaced by Purple Cliffs’ closure, she said.

“Everyone is scrambling to do what they can,” Atkinson said.

Noseworthy said on Nov. 10 she understands why nonprofits want to establish services quickly. And she acknowledged the urgency of establishing services to avoid loss of life with winter well on the way.

Fruitless efforts to find community shelter locations

The city has made joint efforts with the county to locate and potentially purchase or lease properties. City Council has met in executive sessions about some properties and La Plata County has committed $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to the cause.

Since June, a working group between the city and the county has searched for a suitable location for a permanent managed community. But in an interview with The Durango Herald, Noseworthy said any potential progress ceased when landowners learned the prospective properties would be used to shelter the unhoused.

Councilor Kim Baxter said on Friday that direction on a managed community or other solutions to mitigating homelessness must stem from experts in homelessness.

“And that’s the only way we’ll be successful. (With) the city being the lead, we’re not going to get anywhere, unfortunately,” she said.

She said the city has core services – water, sewer, streets and like departments – and a managed community is not among them. But, she said it is in the best interest of the community for the city to do what it can to mitigate the challenges of homelessness.

“So let’s bring in people who know how to do that ... and then staff can do the jobs they were hired to do,” she said.

Councilor Melissa Youssef said on Friday she is pleased with the direction CCH is taking. She said it is a “great opportunity to access state and federal funds that are available for this purpose,” and it’s a good opportunity for outside organizations to contribute to solutions.

With a Continuum of Care program or homelessness authority leading the way, the city, county and other entities can provide financial support for those efforts, she said.

City Council also discussed bumping up priority for a managed community – to now be undertaken by CCH – in its Strategic Plan on Homelessness. And the council expects to receive an update on possible funds available to support CCH at a future public meeting.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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