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Durango renews site search for homeless community

Officials aim to identify location by May 1 deadline
Bobby Womack shows his campsite in November 2019 at Purple Cliffs, a 200-acre site along La Posta Road (County Road 213) that La Plata County designated as a temporary homeless campsite. The city of Durango is searching for an alternative campsite and expects to make a decision before May 1.

The city of Durango is searching for a new campsite for unhoused community members, starting with the recognition that an ideal site likely doesn’t exist.

The city of Durango and La Plata County have wrestled with where homeless camps should be located for years. In 2019, the county allowed camping at a temporary site, called Purple Cliffs, along La Posta Road (County Road 213), while the city took on the task of finding an alternative location.

But when a year passed without success, county commissioners gave the city until May 1 to find a site. After that, it plans to pull its resources from the camp.

City staff members plan to begin a search process by revamping their 2018 efforts and working with a local homeless advocacy group called Neighbors in Need Alliance.

“Do you feel like we’re on the timeline we had discussed with the county commissioners?” asked City Councilor Chris Bettin, while speaking with city staff members this week. “It kind of sounds like we’re starting this process all over again on some level.”

NINA and city staff aim to have a site up and running by the beginning of May, said Nicol Killian, assistant director of community development.

Between 55 and 85 people typically live at the Purple Cliffs campsite, which spreads over the hillside off of La Posta Road.

Some aspects of the camp are working well, according to a report from NINA. Campers have easy access to camping off of the road, and the site is spacious enough for the number of people there.

Campers maintain the vegetation, which offers them privacy, and they have access to amenities, such as a community kitchen, warming centers, trash receptacles and portable toilets. They’ve created a loose leadership structure to maintain and organize the site.

But there is no way to secure the area or register campers to gauge who might be there more permanently. There is no transportation to town, legal overnight parking or official “legal authority” to enforce camp rules. Fire mitigation is difficult – a safety hazard that has raised concerns among county commissioners.

City staff members plan to consider different sites using criteria laid out during a 2018 search process.

The nine criteria focus on whether the site meets the community’s safety and access needs, while being affordable to maintain and compliant with city code. Impact on adjacent properties and community support are also considered.

The city of Durango is searching for an alternative campsite for unhoused community members, aiming to establish a new camp by May 1.

In the past, the criteria yielded 11 options. Some were near the Tech Center or Manna, a Durango soup kitchen. Others were in the Bodo Industrial Park area, the city’s off-leash dog area or the social services campus.

When the city proposed a new site, residents, business owners and other stakeholders frequently pushed back, and the effort stalled.

The same thing happened last summer and fall, when locations near Greenmount Cemetery and in Bodo Industrial Park were considered.

“We’ve worked on similar lists, and so many times each one gets ruled out. So what actually is different this time?” said Councilor Barbara Noseworthy.

“We’ll weigh the list this time, and so we know not all of the criteria is probably going to be met,” Killian said. “... We believe we’re not going to get a site that has 100% community support. How do we want to weigh that compared to access for service and emergency vehicles?”

City Council plans to offer guidance on the criteria list, possible locations and appropriate weight for each criteria in early February. City staff members, working with NINA, plan to return with a list at the end of the first quarter.

It’s possible the city will not find suitable city property, said Mayor Pro Tem Kim Baxter, while recommending more collaboration with the county.

“It may be a county piece of property more than city property that ends up being the ‘ideal’ property,” Baxter said. “I would highly recommend that be part of the conversation, not just the city trying to solve this issue because it’s not just a city problem.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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