Durango City Council informally agreed to allow homeless residents to sleep on a site adjacent to the Durango Dog Park and parallel to U.S. Highway 160.
Councilors did not take official action during a work session Tuesday, but they reached consensus to prohibit setting up semi-permanent camps on the property but will allow people to sleep on the property. The city also agreed to provide secure storage, such as lockers, for residents who need to go to work or appointments.
“I think we need to act,” Mayor Dick White said.
Councilors asked city staff to send a letter to La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith that explains their plan to offer an alternative to camping in the woods west of Durango and to ask him to shut down the existing camp and enforce the county’s ban on camping.
Smith has allowed people to camp north of the Tech Center because arresting people for sleeping in public when they have nowhere else to go violates their legal rights, he said during a meeting earlier this month.
Councilors want the camp closed to help mitigate fire danger and to address safety concerns of residents on the west side of town who have had trouble with people passing through their neighborhood and causing disruptions. Councilors are also concerned about the safety and health of people living in the camp, they said.
“We need to enable the sheriff to enforce the law,” White said.
Councilors plan to meet with La Plata County commissioners next week to discuss homeless camping in the county and their new idea.
The site next to the Dog Park is one of three the city has discussed in recent months. A site near the city’s social services campus on Avenida del Sol was considered, but it would be visible on the way to Greenmount Cemetery. The city also considered a site near Bodo Industrial Park behind the Centennial Center, but La Plata Electric Association is planning to upgrade a substation close to that site soon, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said.
“I would suggest that may not be the safest environment,” he said.
The property near the Dog Park is owned by the city, but it is not set aside as an official part of the park, Assistant City Manager Kevin Hall said. It is also not visible from the highway.
A dumpster and toilets could likely be provided for residents in the parking lot across from the site, he said.
The city also plans to ask Smith in the letter if the Sheriff’s Office would be willing to manage the Dog Park site and for a timeline to close the current camp.
Beyond an immediate solution, councilors discussed long-term plans to address homelessness. The city and La Plata County plan to request bids from consultants to write a strategic plan to address homelessness. It makes sense for county staff to request proposals and temporarily provide a coordinator to make sure homeless residents are connected with human services, councilors agreed, because the county provides such services.
The city and the county have both committed to spend $33,000 each to create a strategic plan.