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Gathering at Fort Lewis College discusses homelessness and solutions

Forty-five people attended a panelist Q&A hosted by Durango city councilor
Homelessness is on the rise locally and nationally, and no matter what pieces are brought to bare on addressing it, stable housing and shelters must provide the base. (Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press file)

Community members concerned about the plight of homeless people in the greater-Durango area gathered Thursday at Fort Lewis College to listen to and ask questions of a three-person panel of local professionals working on the front line of homeless triage.

“Homelessness in Durango – Misconceptions and Approaches” was the title of the event, which was part of FLC’s Life-Long Learning series offered to the public. City Councilor Kim Baxter moderated the panel by asking specific questions with the purpose of discussing past and future solutions along with the addressing of misconceptions.

The first question sought a definition of homelessness.

Caroline Kinser from Neighbors in Need Alliance explained three types of defined homelessness. Situational is when a person becomes homeless three times in a year, caused by some incident like job loss or the death of a primary income earner. Chronic homelessness is when an adult has a disabling condition or a family member with some disabling condition, who has been continually homeless for a year or more, or four or more times in three years. And sheltered homelessness – people living in supervised situations, shelters or motels paid by charitable organizations or by federal and state programs.

“There are lots of reasons why people become homeless,” Kinser said. “Lost job or medical emergency and can’t pay their rent. In Durango, some people are a paycheck away. A flat tire could do it. Loss of transportation could mean the loss of their job. Chronic is a little more serious. Sheltered (people) going back and forth and not getting stable.”

The second question asked the causes of homelessness.

Kinser highlighted a survey done by social workers who asked that question of 83 people living at Purple Cliffs. Twenty-eight percent responded job loss, 27% said cost of living, 13% said disability, and 10% said it was because of domestic violence.

“And what they didn’t say but we know is true, is that when you suffer that kind of trauma you often self-medicate to try to block the pain and that sometimes leads to addiction, and then you’ve got double problems and it can spiral down,” Kinser said.

Panelist Diana Ford, coordinator for the La Plata County Collaborative Management Program, said trauma is at the heart of homelessness.

“Regardless of the situational reason that causes it, it’s different forms of trauma caused by different situations – but it’s trauma,” she said.

Trauma overwhelms the brain, which is wired for survival, she said. From a trauma state the brain is just trying to survive, which can be self-medicating, shutting down or going into fight or flight. To an outsider, the problem and its solution may look simple, but once in a trauma state people are unable to focus in rational and organized ways.

Stabilization is the crucial component to help people begin to address trauma, Kinser and Ford said.

“Caroline mentioned someone being at the shelter for a couple of weeks and then they have to move on, and then they go back to the shelter, and it’s this cycle of moving around,” Ford said. “That crisis stabilization in dealing with trauma is the first step, only then can we really start addressing underlying causes.”

Baxter then asked the panelists how many people are homeless in the area and whether that number has increased or decreased in the past two to five years.

Panelist Stella Zhu is the FLC needs coordinator. Her recently created job is to help students deal with housing and food insecurity.

“Twenty-eight percent of students experienced (situational) homelessness in the last 12 months, and 45% housing insecurity (can’t pay rent or utilities)” she said. “Marginalized students even more. Our trans students – 50% have experienced homelessness. Native American and Black students similar numbers, so there is some structural inequity playing into that.”

Kinser said that in 2019 there was an estimated 192 homeless people counted at one point in time.

“And then we did this count in May, it was a little bit different than a point in time count,” Kinser said. “Twenty of us spread across Durango and we counted 300 (homeless people) between 6:30 and 9 in the morning. And universally, best practices state you always undercount what you are seeing, so (we came up to an estimate of) 419 out there right now.”

Ford addressed the increase in the number of families in homeless situations that she sees.

“When I started in this position in March 2021, we did not work with many homeless families,” she said. “I think on our caseload, maybe one, maybe two. At this point in time our entire caseload is made up of homeless families. And we are in the process of expanding our program capacity to take on even more because that’s the need.”

Baxter then asked where the homeless in Durango come from?

Kinser responded with a March 2021 survey of 45 people asked that question at the Purple Cliffs encampment. Fourteen responded they had lived in Durango for 2-5 years. Two lived in Durango 6-10 years, four in Durango for 11-15 years, four had lived in Durango 16 years, and 13 were born and raised in Durango.

“One huge misconception is that these people are transient, coming to Durango for services,” Ford said. “That percentage is extremely low, actually. The vast majority are from our community.”

Many more subjects were covered during the two-hour-plus question and answer portion between the moderator and panelists, followed by questions from the 45-member audience in attendance and untold number in attendance via Zoom.

But here are some highlights for the sake of brevity. Students, even working students, can’t afford the cost of living in Durango. Eliminating childhood homelessness is crucial in eradicating adult homelessness. The biggest gap in finding a solution to the current and future homeless problem locally and nationally is safe shelters and housing. And if the powers that be in Durango can’t come up with a shelter location soon they should at least come up with a safe parking place for people in vehicles.

But again, a permanent shelter open 24-hours is crucial – and never more so than when it is freezing outside. And long term? Housing. Affordable housing across the income spectrum. Durango is out-pricing its residents.

“I think we need to get into manufactured housing and make some lovely subdivisions that people can afford,” Kinser said. “A lot of money coming down (from the state) is for new building. So (we need) some developers that don’t want to make a zillion dollars, maybe just millions of dollars.”


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