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La Plata County poised to fund warming shelter

Durango City Council rejected the same request last week
Jeff Sutherland, who does missions and outreach with the Vineyard Church, left, talks with Matt Longwell, with his dogs Infirm and Khione, on Nov. 22 at the Durango Christian Church Warming Center. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

In a veiled rebuke of Durango City Council, La Plata County commissioners have expressed support for approving an $11,600 funding request from Community Compassion Outreach to fund a warming shelter for homeless residents this winter at Durango Christian Church.

City Council rejected the same request Nov. 15.

All three county commissioners indicated they would support the funding request using the county’s general fund. The county has $1 million from the American Rescue Plan Act earmarked specifically for addressing homelessness.

“It sounds like purely a humanitarian need,” Commissioner Clyde Church said during the board’s discussion time. “If they don’t warm up somewhere, what’s the mortality rate?”

County commissioners cannot make official decisions during discussion time. County Manager Chuck Stevens indicated a resolution to establish a reimbursement mechanism for Community Compassion Outreach would likely appear on the agenda for the next business meeting, scheduled for Dec. 6. The board will hear public comment at that time before voting on the resolution.

The warming shelter located inside the Durango Christian Church operates two days per week during the daytime only. The organization behind the shelter is requesting money to pay rent and utilities to the church. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The shelter, located at the corner of East Third Avenue and 11th Street, operates from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays. As temperatures dip into the teens, even during daylight hours, the warm refuge with food, beverages and a place to charge devices is necessary, community organizers have said.

Mayor Barbara Noseworthy was the sole member of the five-person City Council to vote in favor of fulfilling the funding request. Several of those who voted against it have stood behind their position despite the county’s posture.

Councilor Jessika Buell re-emphasized an expressed desire from some constituents to place any such shelter away from schools or other city infrastructure.

Councilor Kim Baxter said stopgap measures such as this are no solution.

“My perspective on the warming shelter is that we actually need to not use a bunch of little fixes to fix the problem,” she said. “We need to look at the problem from a bigger perspective.”

City Council members and county commissioners agree that consideration of the shelter’s neighbors ought to be top of mind. Commissioners Matt Salka and Marsha Porter-Norton said Community Compassion Outreach should carefully evaluate “good neighbor practices.” The four council members who voted against the project, however, said it simply needs to be located elsewhere.

Baxter said it would not be worth it to fund a warming shelter two days per week, even as a temporary measure while the two governments consider large-scale solutions.

County commissioners have a vastly different perspective.

“I’m obviously disappointed in (the City Council’s) vote,” Porter-Norton said in the meeting.

She said the county has a duty to protect the safety, health and welfare of its constituents. Given the county’s decision to close the Purple Cliffs camp in September and the abundance of money available specifically for this cause, Porter-Norton said that to refuse the request was “not a pill that I can swallow.”

Commissioners also asked that Community Compassion Outreach seek to leverage the funds to perhaps expand warming opportunities for people in need across the city.

Donna Mae Baukat, co-founder, president and executive director of CCO, said the nonprofit is doing just that. Since a story ran this week in The Durango Herald announcing the city’s rejection of the request, Baukat said the organization has received two separate donations totaling $7,000.

She stressed that most of the users of the shelter are transported there by Community Compassion Outreach in a van, meaning there is little activity at the shelter’s entrance creating minimal impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

A 12-passenger van purchased by Community Compassion Outreach, paid for by a $100,000 Centura Health grant. (Courtesy of Donna Mae Baukat)

More than anything, Baukat was stalwart in her dedication to keeping the shelter running.

“The funding – if I do not have it, my husband and I will use our Social Security,” she said. “That’s all we have. We will do this.”

Stevens warned the BoCC that constituents are likely to raise a litany of concerns during a public comment period when the issue goes before the board. Based on comments submitted to the City Council, Stevens said the issues of church-state separation and land use may arise. He told commissioners those issues were “not in your decision space.”

Rather, the primary consideration for the board will be community input on the effects of the shelter. Stevens advised commissioners that the shelter is already in place and, in line with Baukat’s stance, is unlikely to close.

Church noted that voices of opposition often ring loudest at board meetings.

“Those that are in support really need to step up and speak to us and show that this is something we should do,” Salka said, calling on the community for input.

rschafir@durangoherald.com

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