Durango City Councilors want a meeting with the La Plata County commissioners as soon as possible to discuss the county’s planned closure of the Purple Cliffs managed homeless camp.
Durango and La Plata County have tangled with the issue of homelessness for years and leadership in tackling the challenge is sorely needed, city councilors said Monday during a work session.
Durango City Council wants answers from the La Plata County commissioners after the county’s sudden announcement last week that it has “exhausted all of its options” in finding a replacement site for the Purple Cliffs homeless camp, which is scheduled to close in September.
City councilors expressed frustration and disappointment that the county did not discuss its planned closure of the managed camp with the city before announcing it to the broader public.
Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer attended the work session and said that about 90 homeless people live at Purple Cliffs year-round, but in the late spring and summer months the homeless population across La Plata County grows to about 400 people.
Mayor Barbara Noseworthy said the issue of finding a place for Purple Cliffs residents who would be displaced by the closure of Purple Cliffs is urgent because winter is months away and fire season lasts through November.
“The urgency is also felt (in) that the unhoused people need to know where are they going to go if they’re not going to be at Purple Cliffs,” Noseworthy said in an interview Tuesday.
Councilor Kim Baxter said she doubts the county’s ability to work with the city toward a solution and that it shows a lack of leadership by blindsiding the city with its announced closure of Purple Cliffs without meeting with the city first. She proposed that the city find a solution without the county’s involvement because the county “dropped the ball.”
“I think it’s also kind of interesting how over the past five years or so the city has worked on trying to find a place,” she said. “(The) county says, ‘All right, we’re going to take the lead, we’re going to find a spot.’ And within a year or less than a year they’re like, ‘Oops, sorry, it’s too hard,’ when before they thought we weren’t trying hard enough.”
Councilor Jessika Buell disagreed about excluding the county from future discussions about how to manage the homeless population. Councilor Melissa Youssef pointed out that if the city takes on the burden alone, other cities within the county could funnel their homeless populations into Durango.
Councilors agreed they want information immediately from La Plata County about how it plans to close Purple Cliffs. Buell said she is not willing to wait until the county commissioners’ next board meeting, saying the city needs information “right away.”
“Everyone sees the pressures of homelessness increasing,” she said. “Everyone’s seen the pressures of people having a hard time finding jobs and affording homes even if you do have a job. Our job might be to take care of city residents, but I want our whole community to be healthy and happy. And I can’t imagine that any one of you would say otherwise or the county commissioners would say otherwise.
“I feel like we put our best foot forward and stop throwing people under the bus and not working together and trying to solve in the best way possible that we can,” she said.
Councilor Olivier Bosmans said homelessness is a “key concern” and the city has so far made limited progress. He said he wants an updated list of all possible managed camp sites.
“We need to step up to the plate; it hasn’t happened for a long time,” he said.
Bosmans said it would be beneficial to have multiple smaller campsites.
But identifying the right location for a new site or sites can be challenging, partly because of public backlash, Youssef said. She said NIMBYism (“Not in my backyard”) has been a problem from the public’s perspective in past discussions. She added that transportation to and from the site is another factor that needs to be looked into.
Noseworthy said in an interview Tuesday that having a managed camp or multiple camps is important because a dispersed homeless population causes multiple environmental issues for the community, including sanitation, fire hazards and safety concerns.
She said smaller camps with varying purposes might be needed, and the managed camp or multiple camps should be tailored for transitioning homeless residents into housing.
Homelessness is not just a city problem or a county problem, but the community’s problem, she said. She said political will of city and county elected officials is ultimately what is needed to address the problem of homelessness.
Noseworthy said she wants to set clear expectations of what a possible partnership between the city and the county would look like, and she wants to see a clear commitment from both governments to reaching a workable solution.