Durango City Council approved an emergency ordinance to direct staff members to set up a place for homeless people to stay directly west of the Durango Dog Park late Tuesday.
“It is not done without heart and it is not done easily,” Councilor Chris Bettin said.
Once open, the new site will allow La Plata County to shut down an existing camp north of the Durango Tech Center to mitigate fire danger.
Those who stay in the new site near Lightner Creek will have to pack up their belongings every morning.
“The potential here is to enable folks to have a safe, secure place where they can sleep. We understand it is far from ideal,” Mayor Dick White said.
Councilor Melissa Youssef was the only dissenting vote on the ordinance. She expressed concern about requiring people to pack up every morning because that might make it harder for them to hold down jobs.
“We are intentionally creating disruptive and chaotic policies to the very population we are trying to serve,” she said.
By opening the site, the city is taking on a responsibility that previously belonged to La Plata County, she said.
“I hope we can take accountability for the situation we are going to create tonight,” she said.
The city plans to fence the property and provide temporary water, sanitation facilities and storage for personal belongings. The city laid out its plan for the property in an emergency ordinance that allows it to bypass some of its own land-use planning regulations.
Durango residents were split on the practicality of allowing homeless residents to sleep near the dog park.
Some residents said they were worried about conflicts between dogs and humans and that the requirement to take down tents every day might destabilize homeless people.
Packing up every day could make it even tougher for people to seek mental health care and stabilize their lives in other ways, said Sarada Leavenworth, who spoke on behalf of Axis Health System.
“A 24/7 location is an absolute must,” she said.
Residents also acknowledged the risk of fire danger is extreme this year, and some supported the alternative site because they believe it could reduce the danger.
“Your No. 1 job is community safety,” Marsha Porter-Norton said.
She described the site near Lightner Creek as the most viable right now. But she added that Durangoans need to continue to seek solutions.
“I believe our community needs to continue to have debate and dialogue,” she said.
Some, including some homeless residents, spoke in favor of keeping the camp where it is because residents are organized and they have already taken steps to mitigate fire danger.
“There is something more or less working now. ... There are fire-mitigation efforts in progress now. I feel comfortable as a long-term resident,” Robert Lyle said.
Some speakers, including members of the homeless community, said it was likely campers would move farther into the woods rather than move into the new camp, and that could increase the fire danger.
“I think the smart choice is to keep them right where they are,” said Garth Schultheis, director of the Durango House of Prayer.
Camp resident Jessica Gomez said fire can happen everywhere, but that the self-governance at the camp has helped keep it cleaner and safer than it was three years ago.
“It’s come a long way. Maybe we can just get more help up there,” Gomez said.
The county has allowed homeless residents to camp north of the Durango Tech Center because arresting people for sleeping in public when they have nowhere else to go violates their legal rights, La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith has said.
But he said he would be willing to shut down the camp once an alternative site was provided. However, the county will give residents notice before they are required to leave.