Two recently elected city councilors pushed their colleagues to answer a question some members of the community, city government and civil rights groups have been asking for years: What role does the city have to play in addressing homelessness?
The question, for all intents and purposes, went unanswered Tuesday at a special study session attended by more than a dozen people. Mayor Melissa Youssef said the City Council will continue to discuss the question at an all-day retreat Wednesday, when councilors plan to discuss their collective goals for the next two years.
Youssef suggested the council be diligent in deciding the city’s role.
“We’re addressing it (homelessness) right now in the way we deem most appropriate, which is engaging experts, seeking feedback through the community. That’s an essential step. As much as I’d like to see us take proactive action, I recognize the need to consider all factors involved,” she said.
The conversation Tuesday between city staff and councilors sparked last week when La Plata County commissioners, in a joint meeting with the City Council, told Durango officials they found a potential location for the homeless to legally rest overnight on public property. The open space is a small parcel near the Purple Cliffs on the west side of the Animas River near Escalante Middle School.
But county officials, after commissioners spawned the idea but before they addressed council, discovered the city annexed the property some time in the last 10 years.
Kevin Hall, an assistant city manager who has been spearheading the homelessness issue on behalf of the municipality, was quick Tuesday to explain why the Purple Cliffs location wouldn’t work: It’s too steep, it’s too dangerous, there’s a lack of access to resources, it’s hard for emergency crews to get to the site and neighbors will likely oppose the proposition, he said.
City Councilor Dean Brookie followed suit.
“The only thing good about this (property) is it’s not in my backyard,” he joked.
But Barbara Noseworthy, who was elected to City Council in April, challenged her colleagues about the inevitability of people sleeping where they’re not supposed to.
“I understand the larger strategic issues, and I understand the need to be thoughtful, but the reality is, when people call police, there’s no place for police to tell them (the homeless) to go other than to move on,” Noseworthy said. “Is this something we as a community and City Council want to take on? It may come down to a vote, but is it something we can take on in a temporary way?”
Councilor Chris Bettin suggested it may be prudent to wait until a report about homelessness – commissioned, in part, by the city – is released and offers expert advice. The City Council has been wrestling with the subject for years, he said, and the guidance may offer new perspective.
The Anthem Group report, a $70,000 study designed to help Durango and La Plata County think about how to address homelessness, is scheduled to be finished in November.
“I would love to see that information before we weigh in and try to, once again, use our inexpert authority on this issue to try and patch it together,” Bettin said. “We have been on this road quite a bit. Every piece feels a little untenable. We’re really close to having a more expert opinion.”
Kim Baxter challenged her colleagues to the immediacy of the issue.
“I’m hearing resistance and negativity and why we can’t (designate a property). I’d really like to hear why we can do it,” she said. “We’re not going to go anywhere without that conversation. Is there a way this conversation can happen? There are issues with every property. We can say no to everything, I want to say yes. It is a temporary solution in my mind, but it can’t happen in November, it doesn’t serve the population.”
City Council passed an ordinance that went into effect in March outlawing “camping” and permitting “sheltering” on a designated property in an attempt to come into compliance with a federal court opinion that found it’s unconstitutional to criminalize sleeping on public property when there is no other place for someone to rest.
“Camping,” or “temporary use or occupancy of a location for the purposes of a living accommodation,” according to city code, is illegal on all city property. “Sheltering” is defined as “temporary overnight sleeping arrangements on a designated parcel of property for a period not to exceed the time between one hour before sunset ... and one hour after sunrise of the next day, with or without the use of cover or other protection from the elements.”
Hall said Tuesday that the city’s ordinance was designed to allow staff to be nimble if they needed to designate a site for emergency purposes. He said the ordinance says the city “may” designate a location, not that it “shall.”
City staff have yet to publicly suggest a location that could work as a place for the homeless to sleep. Hall told councilors Tuesday that city staff already did that last year when they identified 11 potential locations for places for the homeless to sleep.
The previous City Council rejected each location presented by staff. Former City Councilor and Mayor Sweetie Marbury said at the time that “the city is not in the business of having a homeless shelter.”