As Arctic air moved into Durango on Tuesday night bringing below-freezing temperatures, residents discussed practical options for helping homeless residents endure the cold.
Mayor Melissa Youssef and La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff welcomed a crowd of about 50 people interested in providing feedback about a new, publicly funded plan to address homelessness.
“I think we are making progress in the right direction. ... As a government, we will have a path forward,” Youssef said at the county administration building.
Consultants, nonprofit workers and others pitched ideas such as lockers, a managed camp and a low-barrier shelter, all services that could be part of the new plan.
When finished, the plan will provide details about how much each idea will cost and what group could oversee it, said Jennifer Lopez, a Durango contractor working for The Athena Group.
“No strategies go into this plan unless somebody owns it and we think we have enough money to do it,” she said.
The city of Durango and La Plata County hired The Athena Group, a consultancy based in Washington, to develop the $70,000 plan. It is expected to be finished at the end of the year.
The consultants formed the Durango-La Plata County Planning and Action Team on Homelessness, or PATH, to develop the plan. PATH includes concerned residents, representatives from nonprofits and businesses, and residents with personal experience with homelessness.
The draft plan envisions centralizing services for homeless residents, providing a safe area for car camping, potentially building a low-barrier shelter and setting up a managed camp in a new location, among other ideas. A low-barrier shelter would accept residents who use drugs and alcohol.
La Plata County currently allows camping on a 200-acre site along La Posta Road (County Road 213) near the Durango Gun Club range. But the site is problematic because of its distance from services, challenging terrain and the insufficient width of La Posta Road for traffic and pedestrians.
Feedback provided Tuesday night on anonymous sticky notes about locations for a camp seemed to be diametrically opposed. Some suggested placing the camp out of town and others said it should be close to services.
“There is no obvious, easy solution,” Commissioner Westendorff said as she read the notes.
Assistant City Manager Kevin Hall was soliciting ideas for a camp location and hadn’t heard any new workable ideas two hours into the meeting. But he was heartened by the turnout and interest in finding solutions.
“It’s going to help move the issue forward,” he said.
Tim Sargent, who is camping at Purple Cliffs, said he would like to see the city allow camping south of the current campground because it’s easier to access. No one with disabilities can hike into the county’s property at Purple Cliffs, he said.
He is also supportive of a centralized location to access services and lockers. A locker would allow him to safely stow all his gear and look for work during the day, he said.
“I am really impressed with all of the community organization. ... I hope it comes to something,” he said.
PATH expects the Neighbors in Need Alliance, a faith-based group, to develop a low-barrier shelter. The group abandoned its plans to set up day and night shelters ahead of this coming winter because it could not find a location. But the group is evaluating several possibilities, said Donna Rheault, an alliance member.
NINA member Janae Roithmayr said she is interested in building a shelter using shipping containers because it could lower the cost of construction and it could be easily expanded.
She said she is committed to the idea of a low-barrier shelter because it would serve people who currently have no other options.
“I feel like there are so many people that still need access to a safe place,” Roithmayr said.