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Our View: Need leadership now on homelessness

With today’s deadline to vacate Purple Cliffs, we’re thinking about artist Wendy Abrams’ stirring exhibit, “Invisible Words,” a curation of signs held by unhoused people in Washington, D.C.

Abrams intended viewers to see signs in a new light, void of uncomfortable interactions with the people holding them. The signs convey pride and shame, anger and the desire for connection. Especially interesting are the ones with a sense of personal responsibility. A few follow:

“Please help. Please. I’m not a bad girl. I just made bad decisions.”

“Not my proudest moment. Never thought this could happen.”

“This is awkward 4 me too.”

“Please help. Homeless, Alone and Ashamed. Seeking a random act of kindness. Thank you. God bless.”

Abrams said: “Art has the power to make you think. This exhibit was put together to do that, to see things you didn’t see before, or to see them through a different lens.”

Durango, we need a new lens to examine homelessness. Swinging between places of empathy and contempt, we’re closer to a crisis than a solution.

Many have stepped up admirably to make Purple Cliffs a better situation – the Neighbors in Need Alliance, Community Compassion Outreach, faith-based groups, social workers, concerned citizens, La Plata County staff members and more.

Sadly, it wasn’t enough.

“We have an opportunity to model leadership around homelessness like we do in other areas, such as environmental stewardship and sustainable growth,” said Chuck Stevens, La Plata County manager. “We have such a caring, committed community that wants to be part of the solution and mitigate negative impacts.”

Key words – mitigate negative impacts. We can’t solve homelessness in Durango at this time. We don’t have a housing surplus. But a city-designated property for a managed camp would certainly mitigate impacts.

Or maybe no actual plan is the plan. Unhoused people would disperse and scatter. Some will leave, others will find places in the Durango area. They may not be as visible, but they will be here.

This will strain law enforcement. Rather than one location, police officers and sheriff’s deputies will be dispatched in all directions to deal with complaints about unhoused people, who must choose between survival and compliance. Social workers won’t find clients easily or regularly.

We don’t seem to have the bandwidth to compassionately and effectively deal with the scale that was Purple Cliffs. Workforce housing and affordable housing are competing concerns, with the gap between wages and salaries, and rent and mortgages widening. Still, city officials must do something.

City Council had not made progress on establishing a temporary camp by press time. The pressure is on for decisive action and leadership. The recent letter from the ACLU and National Homelessness Law Center, accusing the city of failing to act and creating a situation that criminalizes homelessness, only adds weight to the seriousness of the situation and leaves Durango vulnerable to lawsuits.

As reported in The Durango Herald, city spokesman Tom Sluis said stakeholders are having daily discussions. “This is a fluid environment in which we are adapting to the ever-changing situation,” Sluis said.

Until we collectively have a better understanding of the reasons and ranges of homelessness, and how many people in this community are literally a paycheck away from it – along with a housing surplus – we can’t solve this. Yes, it’s a tall order. Let’s mitigate what we can with a managed camp.

Do our actions breed more empathy or contempt? One sign from that D.C. exhibit says a lot.

“If home is where the heart is, where does the heart go when there is no home?”