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Homeless residents question Durango’s plan for new camp

Some say proposal is impractical, overly burdensome

Homeless campers living west of downtown Durango are concerned the city’s plan to move their camp and require campers to pack up their belongings every morning is not practical and will disperse them into the woods.

City councilors want the existing camp closed to help mitigate fire danger. They may vote on an emergency ordinance April 3 that would pave the way for city workers to establish an alternative site adjacent to the Durango Dog Park, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said.

If the city discovers an unforeseen problem with the new site, it will pursue another short-term option, he said. The city hopes to have the new site set up within a month.

“We will have a site ready,” LeBlanc said.

In the meantime, Durango House of Prayer, a Christian group, and the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office set up a large tent this week near the existing homeless camp that may be used as a command center for short-term fire mitigation and a community meeting space.

“This is something we need as a community, so it’s a positive step in the right direction,” said Jessica Hill, a homeless resident who helps govern the camp.

Hill said she hopes the tent will give campers a place to meet and a central location where service groups can offer aid to homeless residents.

House of Prayer volunteers and Axis Health System employees have shown interest in meeting with people in the tent, said Lt. Ed Aber with the sheriff’s office.

The tent may also be used as a staging area to close the homeless camp once the city’s new site is ready, Aber said.

Garth Schultheis, director of the Durango House of Prayer, said his group plans to use the tent to lead prayers and serve sandwiches when Manna is closed.

“I feel like they have been orphaned by the city,” Schultheis said.

The city plans to provide a dumpster, storage space and port-a-potties at the new site. Officials are considering putting up a fence to separate the camp from the dog park, LeBlanc said.

Hill said she and other residents are worried the city’s plan to require everyone to pack up their belongings every morning is unrealistic and overly burdensome.

“How much of your life could you put in a locker?” Hill asked.

Tilisha DeLancy said she would move father into the mountains to avoid moving to a site that would require her to pack up every day. It’s possible others would decide to do the same, she said.

“It’s going to be a lot of chaos, I feel,” DeLancy said.

It would also be a physically impossible requirement for some of the older residents to comply with, said homeless resident John Black.

City Councilor Melissa Youssef expressed similar concerns about displacement at a recent meeting. If the city’s site closes during the day, homeless residents are more likely to spend time downtown, in city parks and on the Animas River Trail, she said.

“Displacing residents daily is extremely disruptive,” Youssef said.

Residents have worked to meet expectations of law enforcement to help the current camp function, said Jacob, a camp host, who declined to give his last name.

“Everything that’s been thrown at us, we’ve done that and then some,” he said.

Hill and others worry the trust that has been built between homeless residents and the sheriff’s office will be lost. City representatives have not met with homeless residents about the plan for a new site, she said.

City councilors said the new camp will help prevent fires, but homeless residents say they are already taking fire-prevention measures. The campers imposed a fire ban on themselves and buried all the fire pits, Hill said.

“We are being very vigilant,” she said.

The Durango Fire Protection District is also planning to teach the campers a fire safety class, she said.

Firefighters also plan to walk through the camp next week and mark vegetation that needs to be cut back to create fire breaks, Aber said.

“We can’t afford to wait,” he said.

He expects firefighters, homeless residents and visitors with Crisis Response International, a Christian group training in Durango, to help with fire mitigation.

Those efforts will be based out of the new tent, which was provided by the military for free to assist with sheriff’s office operations. The new tent can be easily taken down and stored when the city’s new site is open, Aber said.

LeBlanc said the city continues to look for a group to manage its new site.

mshinn@ durangoherald.com

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