Local officials are considering the creation of a regulated homeless campground in Durango, and they’re looking to a New Mexico community for ideas.
Earlier this spring, La Plata County Commissioner Brad Blake approached other county commissioners and local officials in an effort to garner momentum behind the construction of a designated homeless camp.
While Blake initially suggested cordoning off a portion of the Durango Off Leash Dog Park, it was recently proposed that the area near Greenmount Cemetery, which used to be an old campground, would be better suited.
The tentative location is an area south of the Durango Community Shelter and north of the transformer station near Greenmount Cemetery.
“It does seem to make a lot of sense,” said Blake, who spearheaded the effort. “It puts it close to the soup kitchen (Manna) and town, and away from subdivisions.”
In recent weeks, a number of local officials visited the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, a homeless camp in Las Cruces, New Mexico, that was set up in November 2011 with room for up to 50 people over the age of 18.
There, the campground is financially run by community support from schools, churches and nonprofits, among others, and is self-governed by people staying at the camp who enforce a no drinking, drugs or fighting policy.
“People come down here to see how we’re doing this because we don’t get funding,” said Matt Mercer, outreach coordinator. “It’s because the community support here has been absolutely phenomenal.”
The camp also offers showers, bathrooms and structures to protect tents from weather, and serves as an in-between for people who want to acquire jobs and move into housing.
“It’s dangerous for homeless people to be camped out in remote areas,” Mercer said. “This has created a really safe space for them, and they have a sense of community here. People can’t work on their issues unless they have a place that’s stable.”
Here in Durango, the property being considered for a homeless camp is owned by the city of Durango, and city councilors must approve the project, as well as work around a city ordinance that bans camping in town.
A city study session on the matter will be held at 4 p.m. June 27.
As the community seeks ways to address issues associated with the homeless population, the idea of a campground that has rules and offers basic facilities is gaining traction with elected officials.
“I do think it would be an asset to our community,” said newly elected Durango City Councilor Melissa Youssef. “But I don’t think it’s the solution to homelessness. It’s more part of a comprehensive plan.”
In recent years, a growing number of homeless people have set up camp west of the Durango Tech Center, near Overend Mountain Park, on county property. The makeshift camp has raised concerns about the amount of trash, drug use and illegal activity there.
In 2014, the county passed an ordinance that prohibits camping on county property, but law enforcement has allowed the continued use of the homeless camp, which preceded the new rule, as long as residents there keep campsites clean and respect the law.
“The premise behind the whole thing is to instill a cultural change in that community by allowing them to continue to camp up there but being accountable and responsible in doing that,” said Lt. Ed Aber with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office.
Now, there are 15 established camps with 24 people that have agreed to abide by a set of rules, which include cleanups and self-policing. That way, when new transients come to town, those people can have an influence on their behavior, Aber said.
The camp’s location carries the risk of a fire outbreak, and has caused a problem for residents nearby, especially along Avenida del Sol and Ella Vita Court, Blake said.
“They’ve been having some huge problems, from property theft to actual people coming into their homes or people sleeping on their porches,” Blake said. “It is real bad, and I think it would help the neighborhood to have them closer in and have a more organized campground.”
Blake said it’s too early to comment on the particulars of what the campground in Durango would offer, but the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope is a good template of what could be built.
He acknowledged that there will be some members of the transient community who don’t want to be in a regulated campground. But for those who do, it could serve as a significant part of a new start.
“I just think it makes a lot of sense, and hopefully, the city will see it that way too,” Blake said.