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La Plata County Sheriff’s Office rejects managing new homeless site

City and county officials disagree over ban on semi-permanent camping

The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office said it will not manage a proposed campsite adjacent to the Durango Dog Park where Durango City Council plans to allow homeless residents to sleep.

City councilors want the existing homeless camp north of the Tech Center closed to help mitigate fire danger and to address safety concerns of residents on the west side of town. They plan to prohibit setting up semi-permanent camps but will allow people to pitch tents and sleep overnight on the property.

Sheriff Sean Smith told councilors Tuesday during a joint city/county meeting that his department does not have the ability to oversee the site, including making sure campsites are torn down every day, at the new location.

“The camp where it is located now is mostly self-governed,” Smith said.

The city has agreed to provide secure storage, such as lockers, for homeless residents and fencing to separate the encampment from people using the Dog Park.

City and county officials disagreed over the effectiveness of the ban on semi-permanent camping, which is allowed at the current location west of downtown.

La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff said if homeless residents are forced to move from their current location on county property, they may move to places that are more visible to the general public or decide to go hide in places that are fire prone and can’t be managed.

Mayor Dick White said it is impossible to predict how homeless residents will react to the new location or a ban on semi-permanent camping, but it is a risk the city is willing to take.

“We all are deeply concerned with the risks attached to people camping,” he said. “We don’t know how people are going to respond. ... There is the risk that some of the people getting settled in the existing camp will disperse again.”

City Councilor Sweetie Marbury acknowledged the plan is not ideal, but she said it is the best councilors can do with the fire season looming.

“We have to encourage personal responsibility,” she said. “The best improvement is getting them out of the woods.”

Marbury said councilors will look for alternative managers for the new location.

If it is officially approved by councilors, the new site could be ready for homeless residents within 30 days, Marbury said.

Smith agreed to start shutting down the existing camp once a plan for the new location is solidified.

Councilors agreed Tuesday evening to send Smith a letter formally stating their plan and asking him to reconsider his decision not to manage the site.

However, Councilor Melissa Youssef expressed concerns that by requiring residents to take down their tents every night, it would destabilize the population, make them more likely to spend time in city parks and break the trust that community members have worked hard to build with homeless residents.

“I fear that if we implement policies that are disruptive and chaotic to their lives, we are going to lose that trust and we are never going to get it back,” she said.

mrupani@durangoherald.com

Herald writer Mary Shinn contributed to this story.

Poll: Would you rather see homeless residents sleep at a new location near the Durango Dog Park or stay in their existing camp north of the Tech Center?

Dog Park site - 2441 - 69.96%

Existing camp - 1048 - 30.04%

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