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La Plata County commissioners urge action on new homeless camp

Joint meeting with city officials also addresses creating navigation center
Durango City Council and La Plata County commissioners will weigh a plan Tuesday that calls for public spending on a new navigation center where homeless residents could find services.

La Plata County commissioners questioned why a new organized camp was not a top priority in a public review Wednesday of a proposed strategic plan to address homelessness.

The commissioners reviewed the $70,000 plan in a joint meeting with Durango City Council to provide feedback on the document that is nearing completion and could guide public spending on homelessness in the future.

Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said she did not want to see a new managed camp become an “afterthought” while groups and volunteers in town worked on other priorities. The city and county currently allow homeless residents to camp on a 200-acre county-owned parcel along La Posta Road (County Road 213) south of a rock formation known as the Purple Cliffs. However, the camp needs to be moved because it is on steep terrain and removed from services.

Lachelt said she did not want to see a new camp get stuck in the planning stages without meaningful action taking place, simply because feasibility studies make officials “feel better about the issue.”

The document would be revised to make a managed camp a top priority, said consultant Jennifer Lopez, a subcontractor with The Athena Group, which is writing the plan. Relocating the camp had been categorized as a second-tier project because it is unknown where a new camp could be set up, what group could manage it and how it could be funded.

The first step to opening a camp needs to be a feasibility study that will look at all the possible sites that could house such a camp, including private property, she said. A study could be done by a group independent from the city and county governments through grant funding, she said.

Commissioner Julie Westendorff said she would like the plan for a new camp to be concrete.

“I am looking for a plan of action,” she said.

Mayor Melissa Youssef said she was pleased with the plan because it shifted the dialogue in the community toward a proactive approach to address homelessness.

“I was very pleased with the participation and inclusion across a wide cross section of the community to arrive at an understanding and assessment of our present situation so that we could envision and contemplate a better future,” she said in an email to The Durango Herald.

Navigation center

One of the big ideas in the plan is a new navigation center that will help homeless residents find services, such as food stamps and mental health treatment, among other resources to help steer them toward stability.

The plan calls for the city and the county to spend up to $170,000 annually for three years on a navigation center to cover the costs of staff, supplies and a data collection system that would track how homeless residents are using services. The annual costs could go down in the second year after some of the initial startup costs are covered.

The center could help homeless residents receive IDs, housing and substance abuse treatment, among other services they need to become stabilized, said Mike Todt, a member of the Durango-La Plata County Planning and Action Team on Homelessness. The team was formed to help write the plan.

“There isn’t one agency that can figure out what a person needs and make sure they are sent in the right direction,” Todt said. The center could fill that void in Durango, he said.

Manna soup kitchen provides a place for some service providers to meet with homeless residents, and the nonprofit might be a good fit to become the navigation center, said Todt, a Manna board member. But he said other nonprofits, such as housing agencies, could also fill the role.

If the navigation center and other steps outlined in the plan are implemented, Durango could see the number of homeless residents in town decline, Todt said.

“It is a plan that is really best practices in terms of what’s worked across the country,” he said.

Former homeless resident Matt Dunham said he also saw a clear need for the navigation center that could track how many people are homeless in the community and the kind of help they need, such as mental health treatment.

“We just don’t have statistics. ... Without statistics, it’s hard to get funding,” he said.

The center could be funded in its first year through city and county joint sales-tax collections, City Councilor Kim Baxter said.

However, Westendorff expressed reservations about using the joint collections for operations and creating a reliance on public funds for the center with so many competing priorities.

“We personally have experience with pulling money away from really good programs,” she said.

The plan recommends asking organizations to bid on the opportunity to run the center and setting up a council to advise the center’s work. The council would also oversee implementation of the entire strategic plan.

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