This has been a challenging summer for our community, beginning with the 416 Fire, which consumed more than 54,000 acres and cast a pall over La Plata County for the month of June.
After the fire, as is often the case where burned soils and denuded slopes increase the risk of flooding and debris flow when rain falls, residents in the burn scar have seen walls of water, mud and rock run onto their properties and into their homes. The experience has been harrowing.
In addition to these exigent circumstances that have affected us all to varying degrees, a small but vulnerable population in our community has been displaced multiple times throughout the summer and now faces ongoing uncertainty about where – if anywhere – they will be able to sleep each night. The homeless residents of La Plata County have once again found themselves without a sanctioned place to sleep. While the 416 Fire exacerbated the situation when fire risk made camping on public lands dangerous for individuals and the community at large, the conversation began long before the fire ignited.
Homelessness is not unique to La Plata County; communities throughout the United States are home to a growing number of people who lack housing and the challenge to find appropriate and safe places for people to sleep – while at the same time ensuring community safety – is not easy to address. The reasons for homelessness are multifaceted, including, but not limited to: increasing housing costs; the inability to earn a living wage; medical bankruptcy; domestic violence; and disabling medical or mental health conditions. Mental health issues are significant for our community given our remote location and Colorado’s ranking as 34th in the nation in the number of beds per capita needed to provide minimally adequate treatment for people with severe mental illness. For more than a year, La Plata County has been working with our partners at the city of Durango and local and state nonprofits to attempt to strike a balance both for the short and long term.
The long-term goal has been to work together to establish a permanent supportive housing option for homeless people in our community. This is a proven model used throughout the country and in Colorado to build resources into the housing environment so that people have a foundation for stability. In the short-term, though, a place for people to lay their heads at night is both a legal and moral responsibility of our community. The county-owned land met that responsibility but was creating public safety issues, particularly in light of the drought.
Because of fire risk and neighborhood concerns about safety, the Board of County Commissioners agreed in May to close the informal camp on county-owned land off Tech Center Drive when the city of Durango opened an alternate location for homeless people to sleep. The city had committed to do so by June 30 and was exploring options for an overnight shelter when the 416 Fire and the extreme fire risk prompted La Plata County to enact Stage 3 fire restrictions, which closed all county-owned lands.
Like all people evacuated during the fire, the homeless campers who were using the county land had access to the evacuation shelter at Escalante Middle School during the fire. When that shelter closed, the city of Durango opened a temporary overnight site for homeless evacuees to use while the city prepared a longer-term location. On Aug. 24, the temporary site closed but no other option opened.
The county is following through on our commitment to address public safety concerns about homeless people camping on county-owned land and the Sheriff’s Office has been actively enforcing the camping ban. However, these laws are costly to enforce, and the obligation to provide a location for people to sleep remains unmet. While we are still committed to a community partnership to a long-term option for addressing homelessness in our community, there is now a short-term void.
La Plata County will continue to work toward and invest in finding ways to address this challenge so that vulnerable people’s basic human needs are met without compromising community health, safety and welfare. The solutions are not easy, but it is our obligation to find them.
Gwen Lachelt is chairwoman of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners. Reach her at 382-6219.