White: Homelessness in Durango - When ‘they’ are ‘us’

Friday, Feb. 23, 2018 3:54 PM
Mayor Dick White

Last Saturday was a typical day in Durango. Even during the holiday weekend, there were three significant events to engage people and, notably, all dealt with marginalized populations. Given the urgency of the issue, I attended the Homelessness Forum over the #MeToo March and the Diversity Dialogue.

The keynote speaker, University of Denver professor Don Burnes, shared a compelling definition from a professional woman who was homeless for years as a child: “Home is a safe, secure, stable place to be, a sanctuary, a place to keep my stuff.”

Burnes estimated that several hundred people in La Plata County have no homes, perhaps half of whom are camping, while the rest live in vehicles, couch-surf or otherwise find shelter. There are 545 subsidized low-income housing units in the county, all with six-to-12-month waiting lists, while market rate rentals lie beyond reach of many working poor.

Like #MeToo marchers, many individuals who lack shelter have suffered abuse, leading to a high percentage suffering behavioral health issues. However, it is the intersection of these conditions with poverty that separates homeless people from even larger numbers of individuals coping less visibly with similar personal challenges. Moreover, a critical dimension of homelessness is social isolation, which can create mental health issues even for otherwise robust individuals by limiting their ability to meet the human need for caring relationships.

The immediate challenge for La Plata County and Durango is that even in winter there are about 30 illegal camps on “the hill” above the Tech Center. The sheriff has declined to evict the campers, citing a 2015 court ruling that no-camping regulations violate First Amendment rights if there are no legal alternatives for individuals to meet the fundamental human need for sleep.

At the forum, Sheriff’s Office Lt. Ed Aber spoke personally, rather than officially, to share his experience with the camp on “the hill.” Over three years, starting as an untrusted law officer, he has built relationships with the campers. Importantly, given a measure of stability, they have built relationships with one another. Beyond five rules initially established by the Sheriff’s Office, campers have generated another 15 rules to better maintain order and especially security among themselves, creating a nascent sense of community. Rather than being strewn with litter, the camps now are cleaned up regularly and self-maintained by the residents. Provision of portable toilets also has improved sanitation, and recognition of fire risk has led to a self-maintained ban on fires.

Nationally, experience has shown that providing housing and supportive services to people living without shelter is cost-effective. Reduced visits to emergency rooms, jails and detox centers save much more public money than it costs to provide housing and services that can facilitate transition into other safe and stable living situations.

Housing Solutions of the Southwest is preparing a proposal to secure low-income housing tax credits to build a 30-to-40-unit permanent supportive housing facility on the social services campus near the existing shelter. Part of the proposal is an option for a long-term lease on the city-owned property. Even with funding, however, to develop plans and complete construction will likely take two additional years and will not address the immediate challenge.

Other initiatives face similar time lags. Consequently, Durango City Council and La Plata County Board of County Commissioners are grappling with the need for short-term action. One possibility is to hire a Homeless Programs Coordinator. The coordinator would help develop an integrated approach to homelessness, while facilitating connection of individuals to available services.

Particularly after a very dry winter, our community needs to minimize the fire risk to individuals and the community posed by camping outside of formal campgrounds. At the same time, City Council is loath to approve what could become a “permanent temporary camp” in the city. This reluctance prompted our recent suggestion that providing nightly shelter could meet the immediate First Amendment challenge associated with clearing the camp on “the hill.” Neither the BOCC nor the sheriff have yet had an opportunity to respond, but collectively we must decide soon on a plan for 2018.

Durango is an extraordinarily generous community, supporting a host of nonprofit organizations, some of which are on the forefront of dealing compassionately with the poor and the homeless. Can we come together to countenance approaches that will make many uncomfortable, even as we provide comfort for others? At the Homelessness Forum, architect Stuart Ohlson, creator of the portable HHI House (, opined that Durango is “violently opposed to the reminder of homelessness.” Is this true?

I believe that a central issue is perception of unsheltered people as “other.” Burnes cited national evidence that no more than about 20 percent of unsheltered people fulfill the common negative stereotype. Local data compiled by the Homelessness Coalition in 2016 show that a large minority have been homeless here for more than a decade. Moreover, only 25 to 30 of 100 winter lunch clients at Manna are homeless, and about 10 of them have jobs? Who are the rest?

“They” really are some of “us.”

Dick White is the mayor of Durango, a position rotating among members of City Council. Reach him at