Nakeia and James Muñoz spent a month living in their Subaru with their 11-year-old daughter sharing a blanket and pillow before they moved into the Volunteers of America Durango Community Shelter.
“We promised ourselves and (our daughter) that we would find some stability,” Nakeia Muñoz said.
For about nine months, the family has shared a bedroom at the shelter and found a diverse, warm environment among their fellow residents, the couple said.
“It’s not people who are just addicted alcoholics, lazy or just neglectful,” James Muñoz said of those staying at the shelter.
Nakeia and James Muñoz have college degrees and have met other shelter residents who were successful in business before they lost their homes, they said.
“There is all walks of life, all ages,” James Muñoz said.
In 2017, the shelter served 411 people, including 238 men, 120 women and 53 children. Of those, 94 clients identified themselves as residents of Durango and about a third were from Southwest Colorado, said Rachel Bauske Frasure, Volunteers of America division director, in an email to The Durango Herald. The VOA oversees the shelter and spends $43 to house each person each night, she said.
In the first 10 months of 2018, the shelter served 251 families and individuals, she said.
Demand for services at the shelter has largely remained flat. Although it did spike after the city closed its overnight campsite for homeless residents near Greenmount Cemetery this summer, she said.
The shelter can house 40 sober clients at its maximum capacity, and it is “pretty consistently” at or close to capacity, Bauske Frasure said.
“Sometimes, we have folks calling each day to see if a bed has opened up,” she said.
Insufficient housing for homeless residents in Durango has been contentious during the past year because many end up camping on public land. Residents have been particularly concerned about the fire danger the camps posed and insufficient sanitation for human waste.
But before Durango can establish additional solutions to homelessness, the community needs to overcome attitudes that homeless residents in Durango are less valuable than other people, Nakeia Muñoz said.
“Everybody there (at the shelter) has family; they have children, brothers, sisters. ... They are just like everybody else, and I think people lose sight of that,” James Muñoz said.
Those who take time to talk with shelter residents can overcome their preconceptions about homelessness, the couple said.
“Homelessness does not have one face,” Nakeia Muñoz said.
In recent years, shelter staff have been working with more residents who have physical disabilities, mental health and behavioral health conditions, and substance abuse issues, Bauske Frasure said.
“People that have more barriers have more challenges in accessing housing and maintaining stable housing,” she said. For example, a client living on Social Security disability benefits may not be able to afford housing.
One of the goals of the shelter is to help people move into permanent housing. The VOA employs three case managers to help shelter residents find permanent housing.
In 2017, 93 clients out of 360 people who were allowed to stay up to three weeks moved into permanent housing, according to data provided by VOA.
In October, the shelter extended the amount of time individuals can stay from three weeks to six weeks to help more residents move into permanent housing.
“A respite from crisis is a critical component in supporting people to become self-reliant,” Bauske Frasure said.
The six-week stay is also intended to help more people find full-time employment and qualify to spend more time at the shelter. Those working full time can stay for an additional three months, Bauske Frasure said.
The VOA offers even longer stays to veterans and their families. For example, the Muñozes are eligible to stay for up to two years through the Veterans Transitional Housing Program because James Muñoz served in the U.S. Navy.
The Muñozes came to Durango from Flagstaff, Arizona, with $8 because they could no longer afford their home.
The family left Flagstaff because of its high cost of housing and difficult job market, problems present in Durango as well. The couple expects to qualify for a housing voucher in the next two to three months, but it will not be sufficient for a family of three, Nakeia Muñoz said.
James has a degree in electronics/engineering technology, and Nakeia has a degree in social work. However, they are now planning to be professional writers and speakers after their experience with homelessness.
The couple feels moved to “be of service, a calling to spread love and light,” James Muñoz said.