Durango City Council has backed away from establishing a formally designated campground for homeless residents and instead is considering setting up shelters in churches, city buildings, county facilities or other designated structures.
“It did feel more humane to us,” Councilor Chris Bettin said Thursday at a meeting with La Plata County commissioners.
“We all are trying to find something that works the best for our whole community,” Mayor Dick White said.
The city’s pivot on creating a designated campground caught commissioners by surprise Thursday. Because the idea to set up shelters in established buildings is new, commissioners told councilors they were not prepared to make a decision.
“I don’t know how to react. ... What you are proposing is so different from the direction we were heading,” Commissioner Julie Westendorff said.
Commissioners and councilors previously discussed opening a campground for homeless residents who currently live on county property west of downtown Durango. The sprawling location had about 45 campsites this summer, with one to four campers per site. Officials worry that campers in that area lack proper sanitation and pose a fire danger.
The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office has allowed camping in the designated area because the community does not have sufficient shelter for homeless residents. Arresting people for sleeping when they have nowhere else to go is a violation of their legal rights, said La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith.
The city of Durango enforces its camping ban, and the Forest Service has a two-week limit on camping in one spot.
The plan was to make those campers living on county land relocate this spring to a new site. Sites being considered were near the social services campus on Avenida del Sol and one near Bodo Industrial Park behind the Centennial Center.
But councilors received many concerns from neighbors about those sites and acknowledged they are problematic. For example, a site near Avenida del Sol on the west side of town would be visible to funeral processions headed to Greenmount Cemetery, Assistant City Manager Kevin Hall said. The site near Bodo would be visible from County Road 210, the road to Lake Nighthorse.
Concerned neighbors were not unsympathetic to the homeless residents, he said.
“I’m not hearing anyone say, ‘Let’s not help,’” Hall said.
For Councilor Sweetie Marbury, the idea of a legalized campground no matter where it is located is unfavorable.
“I don’t want to be a magnet,” Marbury said.
Providing shelters for homeless residents to sleep would allow law enforcement to enforce camping bans on La Plata County property, which councilors believe would mitigate fire danger and eliminate a need for a designated campsite.
“We can’t allow continued non-enforcement of laws that are on the books, nor should we create a cage,” Councilor Dean Brookie said.
Smith said he would enforce the camping ban on county property if adequate space was provided for homeless residents to sleep.
But he is concerned shelters could drive some people who do not want to live indoors into the woods and make it tougher for the Sheriff’s Office to prevent fires and enforce bans.
“The more dispersed they get, the harder it becomes,” he said.
Shutting down the camp west of Durango will likely require a formal notification process, he said.
Public officials agreed setting up scattered shelters or any new solution to addressing homelessness will require broad collaboration.
“It has to be a community-wide effort,” Councilor Melissa Youssef said.
Officials did not make a decision on camping, but they did refine plans to hire a coordinator for homeless services in the city. The coordinator will be an administrative position to organize social services provided by other groups. The city, county and nonprofits would fund the position.
“It is a full-time job to coordinate between the governing bodies and the community,” Manna soup kitchen Executive Director Kathy Tonnesson said. She was among those who recommended the creation of the position.
The position might be under the umbrella of the San Juan Basin Public Health Department, said Executive Director Liane Jollon.