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Homelessness, mental health top residents’ wish list for how to spend COVID-19 relief money

La Plata County in no rush to determine how to dole out nearly $11 million
Micah is currently living on the streets of Durango where he moved from northern Minnesota three years ago. He said Durango can be the best thing ever or the worst, depending on a person’s mindset. He recently got a job washing dishes at Steamworks Brewing Co. and said a shift in his mindset and attitude has benefited his situation. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald)

When asked how La Plata County should spend nearly $11 million in COVID-19 relief money, two common themes expressed by community members focused on homelessness and mental health wellness programs.

La Plata County has until 2024 to dole out the federal money, which was provided through the American Rescue Plan Act. On Wednesday, county administrators explained the guidelines for the money and heard from the public about how the money should be spent.

A mix of county residents and municipal leaders attended the virtual meeting hosted on Zoom, which was recorded and will be made available to watch online.

Several residents were interested in using the money to serve the homeless population of La Plata County. Donna Mae Baukat with Community Compassion Outreach wanted to know how quickly money will be allocated after county commissioners decide how they want to distribute it.

Community Compassion Outreach has started an application process for funding with the Department of Housing, Baukat said. She expects to know whether the application will be accepted about 65 days after submitting it.

“So the question is, after the board of commissioners review all the suggestions, how soon after will, say, our project – if we were to specify in an input form that we would like national funds for affordable housing – how soon after their decision is funding going to be available and how soon can we know whether or not we will be eligible?” Baukat said.

About half of the total funding, $5.4 million, is already available, County Manager Chuck Stevens said, but county commissioners are not in any rush to start spending it and intend to take a methodical, measured approach to deciding how to distribute the money.

“Every indication that I’ve had from the board is they want to be very thorough, very deliberate,” Stevens said. “They want to solicit ideas from the community, they want to be very thoughtful. They don’t feel like they are under pressure to make a quick decision. It’s a really squishy answer for you, I understand that. I would just say submit your project and your recommendation.”

Homelessness was a chief issue residents said they wanted addressed at a county virtual meeting held Wednesday that focused on collecting proposals about how to spend nearly $11 million in federal COVID-19 relief money. Manna, a soup kitchen at 1100 Avenida del Sol, began an on-site garden in 2004. The facility provides nutritional meals and supportive services to people in need and distributes food from 9 to 11 a.m. daily. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald)

Stevens added that near the end of September, commissioners and county administration will enter into a work session to formally review suggestions from the public.

Durango resident and youth mental health advocate Harrison Wendt also inquired about the process of getting assistance to the young homeless population.

“I’m seeing an increasingly troubling thing of our young people becoming homeless, living on the streets,” Wendt said. “Students up at the college that don’t have housing are living in their cars.”

Wendt wondered what the best approach to requesting resources is: Should local organizations make separate requests or would it be more effective if they came together as a coalition to make one large proposal?

Stevens and county spokesman Ted Holteen both replied that a coalition would be more effective and would increase their chances for successfully getting money allocated to where it would best serve the homeless populations of Durango and La Plata County.

“Coalitions are always a great thing,” Holteen said. “If you’re like-minded folks and are trying to express a similar problem, if you can get that kind of organization, certainly submitting one form from one group is certainly better than submitting four forms from disparate folks.”

Wendt also asked if mental health was an eligible area to receive funding. He was worried that because mental health is a broad issue that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic it might be excluded from the federal assistance.

Stevens assured Wendt that mental health is eligible for funding. He added that homelessness issues, which county commissioners hear about three to four times a week, have the board’s interest.

“Mental health issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Stevens said. “I think we can prove that conclusively. So that would definitely be a qualified expense. How do we account for it and make sure we survive the audit? That would be on the county, but I’m confident that that would be a qualified, eligible expense.”

Rural La Plata County resident Kristine Melrose expressed concerns about drug use across the county and said that overdoses and an affiliation with street drugs needs to be addressed.

“I’ve been in this county my entire life, several generations in this county,” Melrose said. “I have gone to many, many funerals of people that have overdosed in our county. I think that should definitely be addressed with the street drugs that are available to people. And especially the more homeless that come into our county, I feel like it’s not just mental health but also the drugs that are available. I know ultimately it’s their decision to take and ingest or however they are doing it, but it is still readily available and that should definitely be addressed, it should not just be a misdemeanor.”

Stevens said he thinks the board wholeheartedly agrees with Melrose.

The county has until 2026 to spend the money it received through the American Rescue Plan. Holteen said Wednesday that the board of commissioners intends to allocate the money to generational projects that will have broad and lasting impacts on as many county residents as possible.

Residents can submit comments, ideas and suggestions to the board of commissioners for consideration via an online form, which was provided during the virtual meeting and is available on the county’s website.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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