A new resource center for people experiencing homelessness is slowly coming to fruition at Manna, a local soup kitchen in Durango.
In January 2020, the city and La Plata County created a strategic plan that mapped out how to support people facing housing insecurity. It was a significant step for the two governments, which have struggled for years to address homelessness.
Manna, in a leading role designated by the governments, has spent the year checking off items on the plan’s to-do list.
It’s all about helping people take those next steps toward self-sufficiency, said Ann Morse, Manna executive director.
“We’ll help provide that case management and support, but we’re not providing new resources necessarily,” she said. “We’re providing that connection to (other services).”
The city/county Strategic Plan on Homelessness outlined several recommendations that could be accomplished in the first year after the plan’s approval.
Those recommendations included creating a resource center, establishing a coordinating council, securing government funding, collecting data and hiring staff members. Then with a more coordinated support system in place, local groups could move onto long-term goals outlined in the plan.
The city and county selected Manna to take the lead in April, allocating $80,000 to support the effort from the city/county joint sales tax.
Manna took its new role and ran with it.
It helped launch the coordinating council, which held its first meeting in mid-July, and hired someone to facilitate council meetings.
The council is a collaborative made up of 18 stakeholders who represent the city and county, local law enforcement, service providers, community members, people who have experienced homelessness and/or housing instability, and their advocates.
On Sept. 1, Manna plans to launch renovation work on its building to create the resource center.
Right now, Manna has one big room, which is not conducive to providing services, like private case management meetings. The renovations will provide four office spaces, a meeting room, a front desk, a food market and a takeout window.
To stock the food market, Manna partnered with the Carver Farm, owned by Jim and Lori Carver.
Using its existing garden and part of the Carver Farm, Manna ramped up its fresh produce production from about 2,000 pounds of food annually in 2020 to an estimated 8,000 pounds in 2021.
The garden contains organically grown corn, carrots, onions, leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers, winter squash and more.
“It’s lots of stuff that stores well to make it last through the winter when fresh produce isn’t available,” said Kyler Grandkoski, Manna garden education and food security director.
It’ll keep growing from there: Manna is producing food on only half an acre this year. The garden plus the Carver Farm gives the nonprofit access to about 2 acres for food production.
“This (land) is just set up beautifully for growing food, and it seems like Manna is the perfect people to do it,” Jim Carver said.
“We just wanted to get it used. When Manna approached us, we were just ecstatic,” Lori Carver said. “It’s our way of giving back to the community.”
The additional fresh produce will allow people the “dignity of choice.” Instead of relying on prepared meals or food boxes, families can choose the ingredients they want for dietary restrictions, cultural dishes or their own preferences, Morse said.
After the renovations to its building, partnering organizations will also be able to use the new offices and meeting spaces to provide services through the resource center.
The design is trauma-informed, which means the space will be comfortable to people who come from varied backgrounds and/or might have had difficult experiences in places like medical facilities or other institutions.
The construction is scheduled to wrap up in December with the building reopening Jan. 1. In the meantime, Manna will still be able to provide its services to clients using the culinary administration building, Morse said.
The total resource center budget for 2021 is $295,000, but that will increase in 2022, Morse said.
Once the resource center is up and running, Manna will be able to provide a centralized information source for people who want to learn about services offered in Durango. Then through case management, Manna will be able to help people navigate different services over the “long haul,” Morse said.
“It’s going to help that person take the steps because it’s so easy to get (overwhelmed),” Morse said.
Some community members in Durango have resisted additional services for people experiencing housing insecurity in their neighborhoods.
Manna has been holding neighborhood meetings this summer to gather feedback about what neighbors like or hope would be different, Morse said.
As part of the strategic plan on homelessness, the nonprofit is gathering more information about client demographics, varying needs among clients and service use. That data was also requested by community members, Morse said.
“We really take that feedback, and that’s how we grow in the future,” she said. “We’ll continue doing those neighborhood meetings on a consistent basis.”