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Tackling homelessness needs to be a communitywide effort, officials say

Durango police, nonprofits work to bridge gaps in achieving common outcomes
Alisha Cargill plays with the family dog, Taz, on April 5 at the Spanish Trails Inn & Suites where she was housed with her husband and two children thanks to Manna soup kitchen. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The most valuable tool in combating homelessness is providing adequate housing, something the city of Durango and La Plata County acknowledge they lack. Connecting unhoused residents to organizations that can get them housed can be just as difficult.

Officials from Durango Police Department and Manna soup kitchen say it will take a communitywide effort from the city, county and nonprofits to build a system that accommodates the unhoused and prevents others on the verge of homelessness from slipping through the cracks.

Some organizations, including nonprofits and the Durango Police Department, are already working on it. With warmer weather inviting more unhoused residents to the area, they have their work cut out for them.

Manna soup kitchen is on the front lines of helping feed the less fortunate, but it also helps unhoused residents find shelter and permanent housing. The nonprofit works with a variety of clients with unique circumstances to find tailored solutions.

One of those clients is Alisha Cargill and her husband, James Sanderson. They have two children who attend Florida Mesa Elementary School and have a dog named Taz.

Cargill said Manna and the La Plata Family Centers Coalition helped her family through some of the roughest times of their lives. In April, she was staying at the Spanish Trails Inn & Suites thanks to Manna securing them a room.

They’ve struggled with money before, but things “got really twisted” in October when they found themselves caught up in a housing scam that cost them $2,700. Cargill and her husband paid to lease a house, were given a key, but came to find out the person leasing the house didn’t own it.

Law enforcement got involved.

Cargill said her husband, kids and dog became homeless. They were living out of their car when they got in touch with Manna, which was able to put them up in a hotel until they could figure out a more permanent solution.

She said being homeless was especially rough for her kids, but at least they could shower and get regular lunches at school.

“We will get back on our feet from everything we've lost and we will make it better for them,” she said.

Alisha Cargill plays with the families dog, Taz, on April 5, at the Spanish Trails Inn where she stays with her husband and two children. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Compassion can make a difference

Law enforcement is also on the front lines of dealing with the unhoused population.

The Durango Police Department has kept busy this year with illegal camping, trespassing and public intoxication calls. But in addition to enforcing laws, police officers have tried to inform unhoused residents about services available to them.

DPD recorded 499 trespassing calls this year through Wednesday, nearly 39 times more instances recorded through May 15 in 2021.

Recorded instances of littering, open alcohol containers and drug violations have also increased notably in the last 3½ years, data shows.

Instances of illegal camping between Jan. 1 and May 15 are nearly four times higher this year than in the same time frame in 2021, according to data provided by the police department.

Durango Police Chief Brice Current and DPD Cmdr. Jacob Dunlop said the spike is not necessarily attributable to more crime or a higher number of people experiencing homelessness. Part of it is the result of more police service technicians and park rangers hitting the streets to patrol and respond to petty offenses.

Code enforcement officers, park rangers and police officers are charged with enforcing the city’s laws, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do so compassionately, Dunlop said.

“Homelessness is such an individual and subjective thing. People's desires and circumstances are so different. Some people are completely happy. Some people just don't know how to take the first steps,” Dunlop said.

Craig Beauchamp, city parks and open space ranger, has been on the force for about a year. He said most of Durango’s unhoused have a pretty good rapport with the police department, and efforts to persuade homeless residents to link up with services at agencies such as Manna (with the long-term idea of securing housing) are beginning to pay off.

“Our job is to address misuse of public spaces,” he said. “But that can be done in a way that doesn't have to be aggressive.”

He said some unhoused people just need a little encouragement to seek services, some aren’t aware of the breadth of services available and others are completely happy with their circumstances.

Beauchamp recounted a success story from last fall when he assisted an elderly, disabled man connect with Manna and eventually become housed. He said winter was on its way and he had real concerns for the man’s health and safety.

He set the man up with Manna, which was able to get the man into a hotel before winter struck. The man eventually made it into permanent housing.

“He was not unaware of (Manna’s services). I'm not sure what really changed him, although I had a couple of heart-to-hearts with him and expressed concerns of medical issues,” he said.

James Johnson talks with Amber DeFrenchi of Manna soup kitchen in his apartment at the Miremonte Apartments in Durango. Johnson has lived on and off the streets, but finally secured a home with help from Manna soup kitchen. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Beauchamp declined to identify the man to protect his privacy. But The Durango Herald interviewed a client of Manna, James Johnson, 72, in April who shared his own similar story.

Johnson and his dog, Sadie, lived at Purple Cliffs when they were evicted by the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office in 2022. He’s had both of his eyes operated on for cataracts, he is wheelchair-bound and he suffers from degenerate rheumatism arthritis, “where I just bumped my arm or something like that and it swells up real big.”

Durango and La Plata County’s unhoused residents have said Purple Cliffs wasn’t perfect, but it was a relatively safe place and a source of community for the people often overlooked.

Johnson said the cliffside camp “had a lot of good points, and it had a lot of bad points.”

James Johnson and his dog Sadie in their apartment at the Miremonte Apartments in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

After Purple Cliffs closed, he moved into Espero Apartments for about six months, but left “in good standing” after repeated disagreements with the manager.

It was back to the streets for Johnson, Sadie and his wheelchair, which included a portable generator to keep it charged.

Johnson didn’t say how he got in touch with Manna, but eventually the soup kitchen and resource center for the homeless worked to secure him a place at the Miremonte Apartments, an assisted living facility just south of Mercy Hospital in Durango.

Making ends meet

Manna Executive Director Ann Morse said the greatest thing that would help the unhoused in Durango and La Plata County is affordable workforce housing.

“With people that are unhoused or struggling to make ends meet and become unhoused, and even for everybody who’s working here and throughout La Plata County, having stable housing is just hard to find and so important to keep,” she said.

The lack of housing inventory makes it tougher for organizations such as Housing Solutions for the Southwest, which manages “coordinated entry” for the unhoused through a Continuum of Care model with assistance from organizations like Manna, to get people housed.

Alisha Cargill plays with the families dog, Taz, on April 5, at the Spanish Trails Inn where she stays with her husband and two children. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Purple Cliffs was a place people could find some sort of sanctuary. Its closure exacerbated the amount of people actively in need of housing, she said.

She said there is more political will within the city to create more affordable workforce housing, but no single entity can manage the homeless crisis on its own. It will take the community working together as a whole.

“We’ve got to look at the whole spectrum,” she said. “We’ve got to create a plan that fits the needs of everybody in that community.”


James Johnson with his dog Sabie make their way to their apartment at the Miremonte Apartments in Durango. Johnson, wheelchair-bound, and his dog lived at the unmanaged homeless camp at Purple Cliffs before its closure in 2022. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
James Johnson’s dog Sadie crunches down on a rubber chicken at Johnson’s apartment at the Miremont Apartments in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

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