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More than a jail? Officials discuss future use of juvenile detention center

DeNier center could house community corrections or homeless shelter
Frank Van Scherpenseel, maintenance team leader with La Plata County, walks through one of two common areas at the Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center in Bodo Industrial Park. La Plata County is deciding the building’s future use.

The Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center in Durango was built in 1999 and opened the next year with one intent in mind – to detain youths.

The 15,000-square-foot building has 28 beds, 19 that were used for long-term confinement and nine for short term. Many of the beds are located in concrete cells with no windows, or some that allow slivers of light to shine through.

Outside, the facade of the building offers no welcoming atmosphere – two recreation yards are surrounded by 20-foot-high fences, casting shadows in adjoining, secure courtyards.

La Plata County officials say the Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center in Bodo Industrial Park was built for detentions, and any other use, such as a homeless shelter, may require extensive renovations.

The future of this now-vacated building has become the topic of much discussion among La Plata County officials – maybe it will become a new community corrections location, or a homeless shelter or be revived as a youth detention center.

La Plata County staff members have maintained the building was built for detention purposes, and any future course that veers from that use would require substantial renovations.

The preferred option among county staff members is to convert the building, at 720 Turner Drive in Bodo Industrial Park, to serve as a new community corrections facility.

Some members of the homeless community say even if the Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center was converted into a shelter, many people living homeless would still choose to live outside.

La Plata County and Durango’s current community corrections center is known as Hilltop House, at 1050 Avenida del Sol, on property owned by the city of Durango.

For years, the state of Colorado was in charge of contracting community corrections in La Plata County. But a recent change in state procedure will require La Plata County government to contract it out sometime in 2021.

The change has county officials considering converting DeNier to a one-stop-shop that can house all community corrections activities, including ownership of the building and property, under the county’s umbrella.

Tom Harms, chief probation officer for the 6th Judicial District, said previously the DeNier building would work as a community corrections facility, but it’s going to take some remodeling.

To become a community corrections center, the Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center would need more beds. One possibility is converting the gym.

For one, DeNier has only 28 beds, whereas Hilltop House has about 54, which are almost always at capacity. A gym in DeNier could be converted to accommodate more beds, though it would be a loss losing the recreation area, he said.

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said using DeNier for community corrections would also keep the center set up for detentions, so if the La Plata County Jail needed to expand in the future, that would remain a viable option.

The La Plata County Jail has 300 beds, and with the county’s growing population and subsequent crime, Smith said there will be a need in the future to expand.

The county has plans for an expansion that would cost an estimated $15 million. But using the DeNier building, which is adjacent to the jail, could cost half that amount, Smith said.

In the meantime, about $1 million has been budgeted by the county this year to convert DeNier into a community corrections center.

But some members of the public have a different idea in mind for the building.

The Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center was abruptly closed a few years ago and recently reverted back into La Plata County ownership. County staff members recommend converting it into a new community corrections building.

A petition was started in the past few weeks calling for the vacant building to be renovated into a new homeless shelter, homeless navigation center and food bank.

It would take the place of the city of Durango’s plan to create a homeless navigation center at Manna soup kitchen, which is near other social service buildings on Avenida del Sol in west Durango. And it would remove the possibility of converting the existing Hilltop House into a homeless shelter.

“It’s for people motivated to improve their circumstances and transition into permanent housing,” said Jerry Harris, a Durango resident who supports the petition. “It’s an important decision.”

Neighborhood complaints associated with people living homeless in west Durango have been well-documented in recent years. A few years ago, an illegal homeless camp was shut down and moved to Purple Cliffs, south of town.

“The days when there were camps by the Tech Center were very difficult for the greater Crestview neighborhood,” said La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton.

Porter-Norton, who lives in west Durango, said she was not personally affected by people camping illegally in the area, but many of her neighbors were.

“I think my job as a commissioner is to understand when you are bringing a particular lens to any issue,” she said. “I know I’m not just a member of a neighborhood, I’m a county commissioner.”

Porter-Norton said the county is studying all the options on the table, and no final decisions have been made.

“We’ll make a decision when we feel like we have a level of information we’re comfortable with,” she said

The kitchen area at the Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center. La Plata County has money set aside this year to turn the building into a community corrections center.

Yet some significant snags stand in the way of the homeless shelter option, notwithstanding who would operate and pay for it.

For one, landowners in Bodo have legal standing and the ability to weigh in on proposed developments.

As a result, any change of land use on a given property within Bodo – which a homeless services center would need at the DeNier location – requires two-thirds of landowners to vote in favor of the proposed change.

Requests for comment to Pam Miles, who represents the Bodo group, were not returned.

Megan Graham, county spokeswoman, said county staff members have been in communication with the Bodo group to get feedback about the proposals. She said the group has not taken any formal votes.

Also, it remains unclear how much use the homeless shelter would see.

A room shows where detainees would sleep and have their space at the Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center in Bodo Industrial Park. La Plata County officials say the building is built for detentions.

Tim Sargent, a camp leader at Purple Cliffs, Durango’s established homeless camp, said many people at the camp prefer to live outside and be at a site with no strict rules or regulations, which typically come with an indoor shelter.

Also, Sargent said problems may arise when people with mental health issues or drug addictions are forced to live in close proximity.

“Putting people that close can cause more problems than it solves,” he said.

Still, Sargent didn’t want to quash any efforts for a homeless shelter. He said the community needs a range of options – including an outdoor camp or a managed shelter – to address homelessness.

“Not everyone is going to want to stay there (at an indoor shelter), but some people would benefit from it, undoubtedly,” he said.

Graham said the county continues to evaluate all options and will provide information for county commissioners to use to decide on a final option, tentatively scheduled for March 23.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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