The city of Durango on Thursday will open a temporary site for homeless campers displaced by fire restrictions.
City councilors, on a 4-0 vote with Councilor Chris Bettin absent, passed an emergency ordinance allowing a temporary, sleep-only evacuation site to open for two months. Homeless campers will occupy about an acre of a 3-acre city open-space parcel near Greenmount Cemetery.
The Greenmount site, with space for 40 tents, would be open to homeless campers who were moved from a La Plata County homeless camp to the Red Cross evacuation site at Escalante Middle School.
“This is a community problem. It’s not just a city of Durango problem,” City Councilor Dean Brookie said during the special meeting Tuesday.
“If we’re going to incur costs, at the very least, I think it is appropriate to ask La Plata County for assistance and for the nonprofit community to come forward with help they have promised in the past,” he said.
The temporary site near Greenmount would give the city more time to conduct radon testing on a longer-term homeless camp near the Durango Dog Park. That site is near an old uranium-processing mill used during the Manhattan Project.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has sent a letter to city officials recommending a complete health-risk assessment based on the radioactive materials that once existed there. City officials have denied the possibility of any health risks, but City Council has agreed to test the Dog Park site for radon.
For the past couple of years, many homeless residents have stayed at a makeshift and technically illegal campsite just west of city limits on property owned by La Plata County.
However, as a result of high fire danger, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office closed the dispersed campsite in May and moved people to a barren acre of ground, also located west of Durango.
But that site, too, was closed June 12 when La Plata County enacted Stage 3 fire restrictions.
City Manager Ron LeBlanc said that on Wednesday, city crews will meet with homeless campers at the Red Cross evacuation shelter at Escalante Middle School to show them the rules for occupancy at the temporary site near Greenmount.
Campers would be expected to sign an agreement pledging to abide by camp rules before they could move in. Also, the city would check the campers’ Rapid Tag credentials given to people evacuated because of the 416 Fire.
On Thursday, the city would provide transportation to the temporary site near Greenmount.
LeBlanc said it is critical to ensure campers have valid Rapid Tags given to evacuees because it ensures they “have in essence been pre-qualified” to live in a camp with rules and helps guarantee the safety of city employees who would manage the camp.
“Our first priority needs to be the safety of city employees,” he said.
Brookie said he was in favor of keeping the camp “on a short leash,” which could lead to a rapid closure of the camp before two months if it proves unsafe.
“If there is any act of violence at the site, I would be in favor of closing this camp fairly quickly,” he said.
Mayor Sweetie Marbury said she agreed with Brookie “100 percent.”
Marbury also said she favors informing homeless residents about the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless that provides transitional housing and social services for homeless people looking for permanent housing.
Marbury also said city staff should write letters to area nonprofits seeking assistance to help the area’s homeless population.
Councilor Dick White noted that the original reason the open space near Greenmount was rejected for a homeless camp was its proximity to the cemetery.
“If the community objects, then let them step up,” he said. “If people say, ‘this is not right’ I’d say, ‘can you please step up and help.’”
In addition to the emergency ordinance allowing the new temporary site, the council passed two resolutions approving supplemental appropriations.
One supplemental appropriation approved $7,600 to cover the expenses of having employees – two people in the evening for check-in and two people in the morning for check-out – to manage the Greenmount site.
The second supplemental appropriation would add $52,610 to the Parks and Recreation budget to pay for seasonal, part-time workers to patrol city open spaces and trails for homeless camps and to clean up abandoned camps. The city has 5,000 acres of open space.