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Homeless camp west of Durango may stay in place this summer

La Plata County Sheriff’s Office will mitigate fire danger, address neighborhood concerns
Fritz Schnell straightens up his camp while assisting in a cleanup effort around homeless camps in 2016. Durango City councilors and La Plata County commissioners did not identify an alternative to the homeless camp west of Durango city limits during a joint meeting Monday. Officials set April 1 as a deadline to determine how to close the camp but meeting that deadline appears unlikely. The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office will work to mitigate fire danger in the area.

Homeless residents living west of Durango city limits may be allowed to stay awhile because Durango city councilors and La Plata County commissioners have not identified an alternative location for the camp.

At a joint meeting Monday, city councilors and commissioners generally agreed they are not happy with the camp’s current location, but they also have failed to identify an alternative, such as property where homeless residents could stay overnight or at scattered shelter sites.

“Status quo is not what we want to go forward with,” Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said.

Both boards previously discussed identifying an alternative by April 1, in part, because the current site presents a fire danger and lacks adequate sanitation.

Meeting the deadline seems unlikely, so the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office plans to mitigate the fire danger and address neighborhood concerns surrounding the current camp, Sheriff Sean Smith said.

The Sheriff’s Office allowed homeless residents to camp in the undeveloped area north of the Tech Center because the community lacks sufficient shelter for homeless residents. Arresting people for sleeping in public when they have nowhere else to go is a violation of their legal rights, Smith said.

The campground had about 45 campsites this summer, with one to four campers per campsite.

Smith told officials there is already a voluntary fire ban in place, fire pits have been buried and fire extinguishers will be provided. The Sheriff’s Office also plans to reduce the size of the camp and work with the city to redirect a heavily traveled trail to access the camp away from Ella Vita Court to alleviate neighborhood residents’ concerns, he said.

“Maybe what we have is the best we can do for 2018,” Mayor Dick White said.

Durango city councilors asked county officials to provide a letter describing what amenities a more-permanent shelter would have to provide to legally close the makeshift camp.

La Plata County Attorney Sheryl Rogers said a shelter may have to provide more than a place to sleep.

A federal judge recently required Orange County, California, officials to provide extensive help to hundreds of people before closing an encampment, Smith said. The county had to provide motel vouchers, food vouchers, assessments of individuals’ needs and appropriate resources, and 90-day voluntary storage of belongings beyond what they could transport to a motel, The Orange County Register reported.

None of the alternatives city and county officials discussed that would allow them to close the camp gained traction.

White asked the county to consider sheltering homeless residents at one of three locations: the La Plata County Fairgrounds, an empty wing of the La Plata County Jail or the former Schluter Floral building at 1075 East Second Ave. in downtown Durango. But county officials said all of those buildings are used for other purposes or may be needed in the future. The jail population continues to grow, and the empty wing may be needed to house inmates, Smith said.

City officials could allow people to sleep overnight at one of three sites previously identified, including below Greenmount Cemetery, on the west end of the dog park or behind the Centennial Center in Bodo Industrial Park.

Sites near Greenmount Cemetery and the Centennial Center are visible to passers-by, and the dog park does not have good vehicle access for heavy trucks, White said.

If the city opened one of these sites or a similar site to homeless residents, campers may be required to pack their camping gear and take it with them when the sites closed. That concerns some officials because it could make homeless residents more visible during the day.

“They are going to go to a park. They are going to go downtown. They are going to go to the river trail,” Commissioner Julie Westendorff said.

If homeless residents don’t buy into an alternative site, there is concern those residents could disperse into the woods and make it harder to enforce fire bans.

While city and county officials struggled with short-term plans, they did support funding a strategic plan suggested by San Juan Basin Public Health that would focus on addressing homelessness in the long-term and guide the work of a new homeless coordinator.

Hiring a coordinator to work with nonprofits on an administrative level to better serve the homeless was recommended by former members of a homeless coalition that was convened in 2015 but is no longer active.

The plan would document demographics of those experiencing homelessness, gaps in services and interventions to reduce homelessness, according to documents supplied by the health department.

Health department Executive Director Liane Jollon volunteered to oversee the work of the new coordinator, because the health department sees homelessness as a public health issue.

The coordinator position and plan could be funded by the city, county and nonprofits.

“Taking this approach of getting a plan in place makes sense,” White said.


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