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Why a managed camp for the unhoused might be right for Durango

While homelessness is a controversial topic, few would argue that addressing it is not a straightforward matter. Rather, it is a complex and multifaceted issue that demands a spectrum of solutions. Members of our community certainly differ as to what those solutions should be, but I would like to propose today that it is in the best interest of everyone who calls Durango home to consider a managed camp as one method to meet some of the needs of some of our unhoused neighbors.

In Durango, we currently have a range of options – what advocates and homelessness service providers call a “continuum of care” – for various populations experiencing homelessness. This continuum was made more robust with the recent opening of Espero Apartments. While our community has taken steps to provide a multifaceted approach to addressing the issues of housing stability and homelessness, there remains a key gap in service for some of our most vulnerable.

First, we must acknowledge that our unhoused neighbors are experiencing and have experienced life-altering trauma. What we’ve learned from our neighbors currently residing at the encampment at Purple Cliffs is that some of them are simply not yet ready to live indoors.

Managed camps for the unhoused are growing in popularity across the United States, and they emerged as a viable model for supporting the unhoused just over a decade ago at Camp Hope in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Like the many others that have followed in its footsteps, Camp Hope provides a designated, safe area for individual living. Those who live at Camp Hope are ensured a safe place to sleep every night and given opportunities to begin taking steps toward long-term stability in a trauma-informed environment.

A managed camp ensures that unhoused neighbors have access to showers, restrooms, food and warmth. It also offers on-site supportive services focusing on individualized plans for success ranging from ID obtainment to employment, depending on where each person is. There is also connection to physical and mental health professionals, job training opportunities, substance abuse and addiction treatment, as well as housing and resource navigation.

Importantly, what Camp Hope and other managed camps like it have observed is that once people are given a safe place to sleep, they are then more able and willing to pursue permanent housing. The model also facilitates meaningful and long-term relational connections, which leads to trust with service providers. It’s important to note that those struggling with trauma take on average six months to feel safe and begin to trust a community and its providers. This makes emergency shelter systems all but impossible for these people.

What we must also consider is the cost of doing nothing, or simply maintaining the status quo. If we choose simply not to help our unhoused neighbors sheltering outdoors, the likelihood of these people finding stability and housing is very low, and we will still pay a significant cost to support them. According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, a person experiencing chronic homelessness costs taxpayers between $30,000 and $50,000 every year. When that person goes on to live in subsidized or permanent supportive housing after obtaining stability, the annual taxpayer burden is reduced to a small fraction of that original number.

A managed camp bridges an important gap between unsheltered homelessness and long-term stability, and it meets some of the most basic needs of an important subset of our unhoused neighbors. If the Durango community wishes to see its population of unhoused neighbors reduced over time – something few of us would disagree on – a managed camp should be one of the tools in our toolbox to make it happen.

Caroline Kinser serves as the board chairwoman for Neighbors in Need Alliance, a Durango-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide a safe place to sleep for those in need.