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Now hiring: Advocate to tackle homelessness

Elected officials suggest new site for homeless camp
Durango City Council and La Plata County commissioners supported funding a coordinator who would work on homeless issues. The boards have not decided whether the coordinator would work for the city, county or a nonprofit.

Durango City Council and La Plata County commissioners agreed Thursday to fund a coordinator position to address homelessness.

The city, county and nonprofits could each contribute about $33,000 – a total of $99,000 – to hire a coordinator and provide office space and materials.

Durango Business Improvement District Executive Director Tim Walsworth, Manna Executive Director Kathy Tonnessen and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Pastor Ben Delin recommended a coordinator be hired to help connect homeless residents who rely the most on emergency services with long-term solutions, better coordinate nonprofit services and help seek more housing opportunities. This could mean seeking more grant funding for housing, Walsworth said in an interview.

“There are a lot of our local folks that have been dealing with homelessness and poverty for a long time, and we haven’t figured out how to help them,” he said.

The three were asked for their advice, partly because they worked with a larger homeless coalition formed in 2015 that is no longer active.

Officials mostly agreed that providing longer-term services to those who use the most emergency aid could help save public funds.

For example, some homeless residents need emergency medical attention regularly but can’t pay for those services and could benefit from the help of the coordinator, Walsworth said.

In addition to implementing the recommendations, some elected officials suggested having the coordinator help reduce panhandling in downtown Durango.

“It’s really critical in my mind; that has to be a goal,” Councilor Sweetie Marbury said.

Both boards must formally approve funding for the coordinator, who could be hired in the spring.

The two boards also seemed to support forming a committee to help search for the coordinator.

“I think we have got a framework to say, ‘OK, let’s move as quickly as we can,’” Mayor Dick White said.

In creating a committee, community members suggested selecting an expert in homelessness and representatives from the business community, nonprofits sector, faith community and medical field. Elected officials also supported including a member of the homeless community on the board, at the suggestion of Durango City Councilor Chris Bettin.

White suggested the role of the board could be similar to other advisory boards, such as the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, which makes recommendations to City Council.

“I see enormous value here,” he said.

The boards also discussed identifying a new homeless camp that would replace an area west of downtown Durango and north of the Tech Center. Elected officials are concerned about the fire danger the site poses and its lack of sanitation, but they did not identify a specific alternative.

Assistant City Manager Kevin Hall suggested city and county staff continue to study potential sites and bring fresh analysis to officials.

A small group, including Walsworth, Tonnessen, La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff and city and county staff members may meet later this month to discuss next steps, including the job description for the new coordinator, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said.

Councilors and commissioners will likely take up homeless issues again early next year, White said.

“We will be back together sooner rather than later,” he said.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

Poll: Do you support the hiring of a coordinator to help local homeless residents connect with services?

Yes - 737 - 38.39%

No - 1183 - 61.61%

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