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Homeless council says much has been done, but there’s more to do in Durango

Manna resource center, Espero Apartments among recent success stories
A biannual report from the Durango-La Plata County Coordinating Council on Homelessness noted the opening of Espero Apartments and the Manna Resource Center as two significant developments on homelessness since July 2021. Housing Solutions for the Southwest held a grand opening for the Espero Apartments in Durango in October and all 40 units filled by November 2021. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Local organizations and governments have made significant progress on homelessness in Durango, but there is much work to be done, according to a report from the Durango-La Plata County Coordinating Council on Homelessness.

The Coordinating Council on Homelessness released its biannual report last month as the 18-member stakeholder group assessed its progress on the city of Durango and La Plata County’s Strategic Plan on Homelessness. The assessment concluded that the group has made significant progress on homelessness in the last nine months with the opening of Espero Apartments and Manna’s resource center, as well as La Plata County’s purchasing of land for a managed camp and the city of Durango’s redevelopment of the Best Western along U.S. Highway 160.

However, affordable housing remains a barrier to addressing homelessness.

“It would be easy to be all Eeyore about (homelessness) and (say) things aren’t getting done fast enough, but things are getting done,” said County Manager Chuck Stevens, who sits on the council.

The Coordinating Council on Homelessness’ report documented four significant steps the group has taken since July 2021 toward tackling homelessness and meeting the goals of the joint Strategic Plan on Homelessness.

The first was the opening of Espero Apartments in October, which is the first stand-alone supportive housing project in Southwest Colorado and brought 40 units of permanent supportive housing to Durango.

Led by Housing Solutions for the Southwest with support from the city, Axis Health System and other groups, Espero provides housing and on-site supportive services for those exiting homelessness or who are disabled.

All units filled by November, according to the report.

Another significant development was Manna’s resource center, which opened in March as a central location for those experiencing homelessness or food insecurity. The new campus provides case managers and support services on site with a food market, computers, washer and dryer, showers and community kitchen.

“That was a huge accomplishment in the right step,” said Ann Morse, executive director of Manna and spokeswoman for the Coordinating Council on Homelessness. “It takes the entire community and all the resources to provide people with the help and the support to take next steps to self-sufficiency, which would be food security, housing security and employment security.”

The report also applauded the city’s facilitation of the redevelopment of the Best Western along U.S. Highway 160 for use as affordable housing and La Plata County’s purchase of property for a managed camp for the unhoused.

In February, the city agreed to a sale and purchase agreement with TWG Acquisitions to transform the Best Western into 120 units of affordable housing by 2024. Rents will range from $450 to $1,250 per month for individuals and families who earn 60% or less of La Plata County’s median income.

The project has obtained $10 million of the approximately $30 million it will require with the help of Project Moxie, an affordable housing firm based in Durango.

“One major thing happening in our community is the lack of affordable and workforce housing,” Morse said. “The Best Western is the first step on that.”

In April, La Plata County commissioners agreed to spend $1.7 million to buy four properties along U.S. Highway 160 near the Durango Dog Park and establish a managed camp with the help of the city and other community partners.

These steps along with the creation of the Coordinating Council on Homelessness in July 2021 have brought key points of the Strategic Plan on Homelessness to fruition and made a difference for homelessness in Durango, Stevens said.

“When I look at what’s been accomplished like the navigation (resource) center and the forming of a council that is comprised of law enforcement, local government and interested people from the community, as well as people with lived experience ... that’s a success story,” he said.

Led by Manna, the Coordinating Council on Homelessness is responsible for implementing the city and county’s Strategic Plan on Homelessness completed by The Athena Group in January 2020 and adopted by City Council and county commissioners in early 2020.

The plan identified six themes each with their own strategies ranging from the continued operation of the Durango Community Shelter and Volunteers of America Southwest Safehouse to establishing a managed camp and preserving existing affordable housing.

The Coordinating Council on Homelessness brings the city, county and an array of other groups, including Axis Health System, the Neighbors in Need Alliance, the Durango Police Department and the Durango Business Improvement District to collectively address homelessness in Durango.

The group meets every month and aims to release biannual reports informing the Durango community about the progress it makes.

“The homelessness issue is not a city initiative, it’s not a county initiative. It’s a communitywide initiative,” said Kevin Hall, managing director of community development for the city of Durango, who represents the city on the council.

While the four highlights of the council’s April report represent significant steps, neither the county’s plans for a managed camp nor the redevelopment of the Best Western are nearing completion.

The county needs to first gain the necessary approvals from the city before finding an operator who will create and run the camp. Stevens cautioned that, though the county is under contract and conducting due diligence, the sale of the properties is still outstanding, and a managed camp will depend on finalizing that sale.

“People are so anxious to have a site identified that there’s a lot of enthusiasm and optimism, but it’s not a done deal. That’s something that I’ve always got to temper expectations a little bit,” he said.

Likewise, Hall said the Best Western project is still far from completion.

“All indications are that the project is still humming along,” he said. “It’s obviously going to be a while before they get that project opened up for people to rent because there’s redevelopment that needs to occur.”

Of the themes and strategies identified in the Strategic Plan on Homelessness, affordable housing remains the most challenging.

The council this year added the goal of developing affordable housing in addition to simply preserving existing affordable housing. A countywide Workforce Housing Plan that covers ongoing and planned housing developments through 2024 is scheduled to be completed by the county sometime this year.

Morse said the issue of affordable housing extends beyond homelessness.

“(Affordable housing) is a huge piece to the puzzle,” she said. “We’re all looking at it not only because of people becoming at risk of homelessness, but also for all employment and businesses in town ensuring that the staff that we have can afford to live here and thrive here.”

Affordable housing is a focus of the county, but solutions will take time, Stevens said.

“That’s a top priority, but solving that is going to be as challenging if not more challenging than trying to solve for (the) impacts of homelessness because development takes a long time,” he said. “Our greatest need is inventory.”

While affordable housing is the most significant obstacle to addressing homelessness in Durango, Hall and Stevens said it would be a mistake to focus on the barriers that remain rather than the successes the Coordinating Council on Homelessness has had.

“When we did the strategic plan a few years ago, the idea was really that it wasn’t the city’s role, the county’s role or just the nonprofits’ role, but that we would all be working collectively on this,” Hall said. “I think that’s exactly what’s been happening since we got that plan adopted, and it’s been great to see the progress that we have made up to this point.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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