Camping on public lands has been at the center of a heated debate for several years in Durango as residents and public officials grapple with insufficient shelter for people who are homeless.
To help address homelessness, governmental and nonprofits organizations formed a coalition to study the issue, make recommendations and support effective solutions for homeless residents, according to a document listing the group’s mission and purpose. But the Community Collaborative on Homelessness works behind closed doors, and details of what the group has been working on have been sparse.
The group, which has been meeting twice a month for six months, is convened by Axis Health System and includes representatives from the city of Durango, La Plata County, Durango Police Department, La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, Manna soup kitchen, Volunteers of America and Housing Solutions for the Southwest.
“We needed more people at the table and the right people at the table,” said Amber Blake, a spokeswoman for the city, about the group’s formation.
When asked for details about the group’s work, spokeswoman Sarada Leavenworth declined to give details.
“We’re doing a lot, and it’s really tough work, and it’s not work for public dialogue yet,” she said.
She said if details were released about the group’s work, it would be interpreted by the public as definitive action, and the group has not decided on official steps to take.
“We’ll keep working together until we make some progress,” she said.
A document listing the group’s mission, purpose and accomplishments says the collaborative’s purpose is to explore, recommend and support effective solutions for homeless residents.
The document lists accomplishments such as committing to a civil dialogue, identifying resource gaps in the community and evaluating shelters in other communities.
The group also has “embraced the intent to bring volunteers and other concerned citizens actively into the implementation process if our recommendations meet with approval.”
Community Compassion Outreach Executive Director Donna Mae Bauket said the group should release details about its work instead of just “platitudes.”
“We want to know what’s going on after six months,” she said.
She said she would like to know if the group has surveyed the homeless to gather data, has plans to work with homeless advocates and if it has identified land that could be used to provide homeless residents safe shelter during the winter.
City Councilor Chris Bettin said he is also interested in the group’s progress and has asked for a public study session for an update as soon as possible to provide a “full public update on the issue.”
One of the high priorities for the city is identifying a location for homeless residents to sleep, he said.
“We need to find a place for folks that is safe, accessible, accessible to services and doesn’t put them in harm’s way or put the community in harm’s way,” Bettin said.
The coalition’s document does not list identifying a site for unsheltered camping as part of its purpose or mission.
The city wants a site identified to abide by a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that found it is unconstitutional to criminalize sleeping in public spaces when no other alternative is available, Bettin said.
In recent months, the city has stopped enforcing its overnight camping ban to abide by the court’s ruling, and city officials are drafting new rules.
City Councilor Dick White described the lack of location for residents to shelter as a “painful situation.”
“We have got things going, but they all take time to unfold,” he said. “But in the meantime, people are hurting.”
While the coalition lead by Axis has been holding small private meetings, a community meeting organized by the American Civil Liberties Union in December drew more than 100 people.
The meeting showed residents are enthusiastic about working on the problem, said Durango resident Lynne Sholler.
“There’s lots of potential for creativity and synergy,” she said.
She said she would like to see the ACLU hold another similar meeting to enable more conversations about solutions.
An earlier version of this story misspelled Lynne Sholler’s name.