After months of research and evaluation, La Plata County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously voted to convert the vacant Robert E. DeNier Youth Services Center into a new location for community corrections.
Over the past weeks and months, two main options had emerged for the empty building in Bodo Industrial Park: moving Hilltop House community corrections there or using it as a homeless shelter and navigation center.
County staff members recommended DeNier be used as a new location for Hilltop House, which would also keep open the option of using the building to expand the La Plata County Jail should the need arise in the future.
Some members of the public, however, supported using the space as a homeless shelter and navigation center, as well as a food bank. That route would eliminate plans for a shelter/navigation center near Manna soup kitchen in west Durango.
Commissioners in recent weeks had put off any formal decision about the future of DeNier, asking county staff members to further examine all possible options, also taking the time to meet with Durango city councilors to coordinate efforts.
Ultimately, DeNier was deemed untenable as a homeless shelter and a navigation center.
“DeNier is a jail,” said Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton.
In addition to significant renovations, turning DeNier into a homeless shelter and navigation center would require a land-use change, which would need majority approval from landowners in Bodo Industrial Park. It remained unclear over the past few weeks where landowners stood on the matter.
Also, Manna soup kitchen, which is supposed to head the navigation center, said it would not be able to operate at a separate location from its facility. And, the Durango Food Bank said DeNier is not compatible with its operations.
Another challenge, county staff members said, would be the renovations, and cost, required to convert the youth detention center, set up as a jail, into a space where homeless people seeking shelter would be comfortable.
Porter-Norton said the local Neighbors In Need Alliance nonprofit conducted an informal survey of residents at the current homeless camp at Purple Cliffs, and only a few said they would use services at a facility like DeNier.
“We have to listen to people who are actually needing the services,” she said.
Though converting DeNier into a new home for community corrections is now the selected route, it is going to take work to get the space set up, county staff members have said previously.
DeNier has only 28 beds, whereas Hilltop House has about 54, which are almost always at capacity. A gym in DeNier could be converted to accommodate more beds, though it would be a loss losing the recreation area, county officials said.
But another benefit of keeping DeNier as a detention-type facility is if the La Plata County Jail needed to expand in the future, county officials have said.
The La Plata County Jail has 300 beds, and with the county’s growing population and subsequent crime, Sheriff Sean Smith said previously there will be a need in the future to expand.
The county has plans for an expansion that would cost an estimated $15 million. But using the DeNier building, which is adjacent to the jail, could cost half that amount, Smith said.
In the meantime, about $1 million has been budgeted by the county this year to convert DeNier into a community corrections center.
No one spoke Tuesday during public comment, but in the past few weeks, the largest sentiment from residents who have provided input has been to convert DeNier into a homeless facility, which would move current plans out of west Durango.
Neighborhood complaints associated with people living homeless in west Durango have been well-documented in recent years. A few years ago, an illegal homeless camp was shut down and moved to Purple Cliffs, south of town.
Porter-Norton, who lives in west Durango, said if the current Hilltop House (which is in west Durango) is turned into a homeless shelter, impacts to residents in the area need to be considered.
“We need to make sure we don’t go back to the Wild West days of camping, when people were in people’s backyards, they were yelling at people, and doing things I don’t need to enumerate in a public meeting,” she said.
Porter-Norton said the confrontations were especially scary for women and children in the neighborhood.
“If this move (Hilltop to DeNier) means Hilltop is used in a different way, neighborhood issues have to be considered,” she said.
County spokeswoman Megan Graham said the project will have to go out to bid, which means it could take a while for construction to start.
La Plata County came into ownership of the DeNier building in fall 2020 after the state of Colorado decided not to reopen the center after it closed in August 2018.