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Faith-based groups organize to tackle homelessness in Durango

19 churches express interest in finding shelter
Faith-based groups are organizing to shelter homeless residents in Durango. Representatives from those groups discussed creative ideas to offer shelter that do not involve building new structures.

A fledgling effort to shelter homeless residents in Durango has attracted strong interest from area churches.

A group of volunteers from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church is organizing the effort to determine how faith-based communities could shelter the homeless while they search for long-term housing, said Caroline Kinser with St. Mark’s Neighbors in Need Taskforce.

A shelter or dispersed shelters could keep homeless residents out of the coldest weather and inside when fire danger is peaking, church representatives said last week at the group’s first meeting.

The group is not looking to duplicate the Durango Community Shelter operated by the Volunteers of America or housing offered by any other nonprofit.

Representatives from 19 churches attended the first meeting, and 40 people from those churches said they would like to work on the effort, said Betsy Morriss, a task force member. The first meeting drew more than 60 residents, she said.

“It brought tears to my eyes to see that room so full of highly energized advocates for the unhoused in our community,” she said.

At the meeting, the group explored a variety of options for homeless shelters.

For example, instead of setting up a single shelter, each church could shelter a few homeless residents under certain conditions, such as particularly cold weather, said the Rev. Debbie Shew with St. Mark’s.

Another attendee suggested members of the group could open their homes to homeless residents, if it was particularly cold or fire danger was particularly high. Before opening their homes, residents would receive training about how to work with those in need.

Another option could be to open a day center to give homeless residents a place to meet with advocates to help keep them from wandering around town, said Donna Mae Baukat with Community Compassion Outreach, a Durango nonprofit focused on helping residents survive and exit homelessness.

Several attendees were interested in involving homeless residents in the planning and management of any new shelter or center.

“They can help you plan. I think it’s going to really make the programs more effective,” said Mike Todt, a Community Compassion Outreach volunteer.

Church groups also heard from Durango and La Plata County officials about what the governments have done to address homelessness, and what challenges they have faced.

For example, the city’s attempt to set up a site for overnight camping last summer when fire danger was highest didn’t work well, said Kevin Hall, assistant city manager.

“The idea of just saying, ‘Here is a spot over here, go put your tents over here.’ It doesn’t work like that,” he said.

Any homeless shelter will need well-trained management to be successful, he said.

Interim County Manager Chuck Stevens encouraged the group to take a thoughtful approach to any shelter ideas because failure could come with political repercussions from the community.

“Whatever solution moves forward, it has got to be a success,” he said.

Finding a site for a shelter might be particularly difficult, he said, because neighboring property owners might oppose it.

However, the officials extended their support to the faith-based effort.

“Our hope is that the community rises up,” Stevens said. “We’re a part of that process, but we’re not the ones up front.”

The next meeting of the faith-based group will likely be held in May, but a date has not been set.

Any churches interested in becoming involved can call St. Mark’s at 247-1129.


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