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Our View: Unhoused camping along Animas River

They remind us, we have more immediate work ahead

Same story, different day. Different government body, too. Homeless campsites along Roosa Avenue on the Animas River within Durango city limits remind us of a smaller version of Purple Cliffs, previously La Plata County’s problem.

Those images of tents and trash, and stories from law enforcement and city staff members about piles of pet and human feces show us – as a community – we have not moved that needle forward in easing homelessness. Particularly for the population camping along the river who have no interest in staying in a shelter. Like Purple Cliffs, our area is a draw for unhoused people relocating from other Southwest communities.

Generally, we’ve made good progress toward increased housing stock. Critics say a lot of working people can’t afford these affordable and workforce housing units. But the population in need of a managed camp – shelter, trash receptacles, restrooms and access to services – is out camping in the cold.

We’ve lost momentum, even though we have the city of Durango and La Plata County Strategic Plan on Homelessness from January 2020. We can do better.

Yes, we need the real estate for a managed camp and City Council’s help in finding a suitable property. Yes, we need to show the Colorado Department of Local Affairs that we’re united and moving in the same direction before tapping state money from the American Rescue Plan Act.

But we’re looking at and relying too much on local government to solve the problem.

We see citations issued, then dismissed in court. More campers are warned their sites are illegal. More personal property confiscated. More hazardous cleanup needed.

Without the political will and a strong stance in support of a managed camp with at least that 3 to 2 Council vote, smaller versions of Purple Cliffs will pop up, especially when the weather warms.

We need a new perspective. One idea floating around is that we could pivot more toward local nonprofits, such as Project Moxie, lifting up shovel-ready projects to help position organizations so they can leverage direct funding. Because the money is there.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and his team, which oftentimes includes U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, secured funding for housing through the Congressionally Directed Spending process. For fiscal year 2022, this included $3 million for the Best Western hotel conversion, which will help some unhoused people, but not all. And $150,000 is available for a feasibility study to build a regional inpatient/residential substance abuse treatment facility.

For fiscal year 2023, $1.8 million is set aside to convert an unused building into a facility for the treatment of substance abuse.

Matt Lynn, director of community engagement at Project Moxie, said direct funding is a good point but he’s not ready to let go of private and public sector partnerships, the proven model for success.

“I’d hate for us to give up on what we know is the best practice approach,” he said. “Public and private partnerships are the way to go.”

ARPA funds flowing through the state are time limited and once in a generation. “We have to take advantage of that,” he said.

On the cusp of the Council election, Lynn said, “We do have some cause for optimism.”

We do, too.

Creating housing takes a long time. But we have to take seriously unhoused people camping along the Animas River. They need shelter and dignity until permanent solutions are dialed in. We can’t rely on local government to fix this. We need new ways in.