I read with great dismay in the Herald about the Durango City Council’s decision to close the temporary campsite for the homeless without providing a new one. Where are these folks supposed to go?
Instead of forcing them to either leave the area or retreat farther into the woods, wouldn’t it be far better and more humane to create opportunities for them to continue to reside in the Durango area?
Durango, like most cities and counties across the country, is woefully short of shelter space, and the availability of affordable and accessible low-income housing is also in incredibly short supply. We must create alternatives.
As part of my work at the University of Denver, I have spent time examining various alternatives to leaving people on the streets and in unsanctioned campsites. What can we do to provide some kind of living quarters for those who need it, short of permanent housing? What are the possible alternatives?
There are a number of models of such alternatives around the country. One of the places that I have visited is the Right To Dream Too campsite in Portland, Ore. Officially approved by the mayor and the city council some six years ago, it covers a quarter of a square block in the middle of downtown Portland. There is overnight shelter for about 40 single men and about 15 single women, separate areas for couples and for individuals with companion and service animals, and an additional 20 individual tents for individuals and couples, thus completing the sleeping quarters for residents there. In addition, there is an office tent with computers, a cooking tent with a small stove, a fridge, and water, and several portable toilets.
The residents have developed a long and sophisticated set of rules regarding behavior and expectations for those living in the camp. I came away from my visit with great admiration for what these folks, all of whom were experiencing homelessness, have created: a real community of well-intentioned, upright citizens awaiting the move to permanent housing.
More recently in Denver, a coalition of local residents, organizations and funders developed the Beloved Community Village (BCV), a tiny home village in the River North area of the city. The village, opened in July of 2017, consists of 11 individual units of housing that currently house 13 residents. Each building, about 80 square feet in size, houses an individual or a couple that was formerly on the streets. The units have access to some electricity; there is a separate building with showers, sinks and running water; there is another area for cooking and meetings. The total cost of the project per person housed was about $19,000, although half of this was donated materials and other in-kind contributions.
Our center was hired to conduct an evaluation of the first eight months of the village. Based on a series of three interviews with all the residents, interviews with a random sample of neighbors of the village, and a look at crime data in the surrounding area, our evaluation produced the following results:
Among the villagers, there were positive results around employment, health and well-being outcomes, increased life satisfaction, decreased anxiety levels, and real progress in achieving self-defined goals. Neighbors reported few if any challenges with BCV, and crime did not increase in the area in close proximity to the village.
In its conclusion, the report indicates that “BCV is … an alternative to homelessness using an intentional community model.”
Other cities have developed alternatives to overcrowded shelters and street living. In Seattle, the city has created a series of six officially sanctioned encampments, most of which include both tiny homes and tents. Recent reports have indicated the success of these efforts.
Some suitable parcels of land are likely available in the Durango area. There are people in the community who are willing to assist in developing and managing these facilities. At relatively low cost, tiny home villages and encampments can be viable alternatives to persons having to live on the streets and in potentially dangerous encampments in the woods.
It’s time for the leadership of the city to step forward and create a real model of constructive alternatives so that there really is a good answer to the question, move along to where?
Don Burnes, Ph.D, is the founder and chair of the Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness at the University of Denver.