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Our View: City, county must collaborate on sheltering homeless people

“Our nation was founded on the principle that everyone is entitled to the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and with the emerging threat of coronavirus, it has never been more clear that those rights must include the basic human right to housing,” according to Maria Foscarinis, founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

So it is that “Beyond Our Means,” the issue of homelessness and affordable housing, became one of the four FOCUS 2021 topics the Herald will be considering in depth on its opinion pages this year.

Some will argue the two are discrete topics that have little relationship to one another.

Yet shelter is a primary human need, essential to our survival, just like water, food and clothing, equally important to a person has been without housing for a long time or someone can’t afford whatever housing they obtain. Most of us will agree that it is nearly impossible to work, attend school or care for children or elderly dependents without access to food, clean water, sanitation and a means of bathing and laundering.

The “housing first” movement has arisen among homeless advocates because evidence that shows homeless people cannot get and keep jobs, recover from substance abuse and deal with other life challenges if they do not have safe and secure shelter to begin with.

The City of Durango and La Plata County have been working to find better solutions for housing our homeless population. The encampment at Purple Cliffs south of downtown, where some 55-85 people live, is on county land, but the county wants to reclaim that property in the near future.

Numerous nonprofit organizations are key to the solutions underway in the Durango area. Neighbors in Need Alliance, Manna Soup Kitchen and Volunteers of America are at the forefront.

A major 2019 study on the homeless issue in Durango resulted in an action plan that – due to COVID-19 – has been moving very slowly until lately. The City Council took up the plan again at a study session this past week, and the wheels of government seem to be turning once again.

It appears that Manna will expand to become a resource center and provide navigation services to help people who are homeless get the help they need. This will be a significant step toward effecting change.

Hopefully the county will make a more significant commitment to work with the city on the issue of siting the camp – which is just one slice of the housing problem pie.

If we are to make sustainable progress in helping our neighbors who are homeless, the county and city must work hand-in-hand and in concert with the nonprofit groups. People who are homeless must be included in all phases of planning, or the solutions likely won’t work.

We know of one town that decided to create a homeless shelter far from the town center, and in an area without public transportation – the not-so-secret intention being to get “those people” out of public (especially tourists’) view. The plan was jettisoned when officials realized that homeless people simply wouldn’t go there.

We are reminded of the Rev. Gregory Boyle’s story, in his book Tattoos on the Heart, in which he admitted his failure to persuade Los Angeles gang members to change their ways –until he was told that what they really needed first wasn’t his faith, but jobs. Boyle went on to found Homeboy Industries, the world’s largest gang intervention and jobs-based rehabilitation program.

Persistence, consistency and commitment will be required of all involved to solve Durango’s homelessness issue.

And perhaps a good serving of the kind of faith Boyle never gave up.

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