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Homeless left out of working group on homelessness

The seven-member coalition has met four times in the past couple months
Seven entities are working together to come up with strategic solutions to addressing homelessness in the region.

Donna Mae Baukat said she’s worried. She runs a nonprofit called Community Compassion Outreach, an organization dedicated to finding solutions to homelessness in La Plata County, and she’s concerned that neither she nor those for whom she advocates have been invited to a working group convened to address the issue of homelessness in the region.

“A lot of us advocates aren’t being called to the table,” Baukat said. “So we believe, in my opinion, that if they would ask us to the table, we can present to them why a certain strategy may not work.”

The group of seven entities started meeting a couple months ago to discuss strategic approaches to addressing homelessness in the region, said Sarada Leavenworth, senior director of strategy and development at Axis Health Systems. Axis assembled representatives from La Plata County, the city of Durango, La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, Durango Police Department, Volunteers of America, Housing Solutions for the Southwest and Manna to brainstorm ideas.

“At this point, it’s meeting to gather what next steps would look like,” Leavenworth said. “It’s building a partnership between these organizations to look at strategically what we should do next.”

While the group has met four times to date, not much has been decided. Members of the group have spent time at meetings identifying what issues require collaboration to solve, Leavenworth said. “The group is really in a planning, kind of discussion mode,” she said.

Baukat said she’s concerned the group may be wasting its time by not including those whom it is discussing at the table. If homeless people or their advocates were involved in the discussions, they could offer a perspective on the practicality of proposed solutions, Baukat said.

“You can’t just say, ‘Here’s a place where you can camp and here are the rules,’” she said. “That has never worked.”

There were 91 homeless people living in La Plata County in 2017, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. But that number is likely an underestimate – it doesn’t count people who are living with family, in their cars or in other temporary conditions. The Durango Community Shelter provides shelter to about 500 people in the course of a year, according to the nonprofit.

The city closed a space for homeless people to sleep near Greenmount Cemetery in August, just one of four locations for homeless people to sleep that closed in Durango this past year. The city had proposed that it would open a new space for homeless people to sleep but reneged on that offer in August as it closed the Greenmount Cemetery camp.

Then, a few weeks later, the city of Durango stopped enforcing its camping ban at night after the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the city’s rules as unconstitutional. The ACLU argued that criminalizing sleeping outdoors when there is nowhere else to go violates the Eighth Amendment’s rules against cruel and unusual punishment. A ruling by a 9th Judicial Circuit Court panel affirmed this argument and further put the city’s rules in legal jeopardy.

“The panel held that, as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise that they had a choice in the matter,” the three-judge panel wrote.

While Colorado is in the 10th Judicial Circuit, this ruling does have persuasive authority, meaning that it can be used as precedent in other legal cases around the country, said Mark Silverstein, legal director with the ACLU of Colorado.

Sheriff Sean Smith stopped enforcing the county camping ban in 2015 after the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division weighed in on the 9th Judicial Circuit homelessness case in Boise, Idaho, that said punishing someone for sleeping outside, when there’s no other available alternatives, such as a shelter or camp, was unconstitutional.

bhauff@durangoherald.com

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