Homeless residents in Durango take refuge wherever they can – remote hillsides around the city, bathrooms or lobbies, neighborhood alleyways and pedestrian footpaths.
It’s been more than six months since the city manager has had the authority to designate an area for legal “sheltering” – in a tent or under an open sky in a place designated by city staff from an hour before sunset to an hour after sunrise.
It’s been almost a year since a federal court ruled it unconstitutional to make it illegal for people to sleep in public spaces when they have nowhere else to go.
It’s been almost two years since La Plata County and Durango public officials picked 11 sites west and south of downtown as potential places for “a temporary, sanctioned homeless camp.” Each site has problems, and nobody wants a “homeless camp” near their home or business, city staff say. City officials won’t designate a location for people to sleep unless City Council says so, and it hasn’t.
No action has been taken.
City staff members are still using time and resources to enforce Durango’s “camping” ban. Park rangers and police officers pack garbage out of city open space and respond to complaints from business owners about people sleeping under awnings.
City councilors Barbara Noseworthy and Kim Baxter, both elected this year, demanded action Tuesday at the council’s regular study session. Noseworthy questioned whether the 2019 sheltering ordinance has “truly been enacted,” and she suggested the council vote about whether it ever intends to designate a sanctioned sheltering site.
“Can I suggest that we have a conversation to get to a ‘yes’?” Noseworthy said.
The council did not make a decision this week – it can’t during a study session. But it did schedule a discussion about possible sites for temporary and sanctioned overnight sheltering.
“We really have to go back and review details,” Councilor Chris Bettin said. “We have to hear a staff presentation.”
Dean Brookie, the most senior member on City Council, cautioned his colleagues of “overburdening” city staff members with review work that has already been through rigorous scrutiny.
“They looked and they looked and they looked, and they decided there was no site,” he said.
So, where are potential locations? Is there anywhere in Durango for homeless residents to sleep? Here’s what we know from a memo dated Jan. 18, 2018, in reference to “homeless camps site alternatives”:
CriteriaCity and county staff agreed each potential site should be vetted for size, accessibility, safety, cost and impact.
Each identified site is at least 1 acre. Officials evaluate vehicle and foot traffic access and impacts of campers on ecosystems, including the potential to start a wildfire and the ability to dispose of waste.
Proximity to services, such as Manna soup kitchen or the La Plata County Department of Human Services, contributed to staff analysis.
The cost of providing potable water, sanitary facilities and security was estimated at $200,000 for five of the 11 sites.
West endCity and county staff identified five sites in Durango’s west end – open space near the Durango Tech Center, Greenmount Cemetery and the eastern slope of Hogsback. The county and city hosted sanctioned and temporary camps in the area in 2018, organized and managed spaces that have since been dispersed.
“Each site poses significant challenges,” staff members wrote of west end sites in the January 2018 memo. “Significant public opposition, direct neighborhood impacts and functional impact on open space and trails in the vicinity reduces the feasibility of sites for a replacement camp.”
Ella Vita Court residents on the west side noticed problems with people camping above the neighborhood as early as 2015. Neighborhood residents said they have been harassed by people on their way through Ella Vita to sleep in the nearby open space.
Furthermore, city and county staff identify “apparent methane seepage” and “protective covenants” that preclude officials from selecting the county’s old landfill site and the Hawk’s Nest Planned Development as temporary and sanctioned sites.
Two city-owned properties north and west of Greenmount Cemetery were considered as potential sites, but officials dismissed them because of “impacts to the cemetery.” A camp there could make it “very difficult” to avoid affecting cemetery patrons and caretakers.
Proximity to servicesThe west end is a hub for many homeless residents in the Durango area. Manna soup kitchen is there. So are the Durango Community Shelter, operated by Volunteers of America, and transitional housing hosted by Housing Solutions of the Southwest. City transit makes stops nearby, giving homeless residents a way to get around Durango.
City and county staff members identified two sites within walking distance of the hub: the Social Services Campus south of the shelter and east of the cemetery, which was identified as a permanent housing project, and the Durango off-leash dog park.
Each site comes with problems.
City staff members say a sheltering site at the Social Services Campus could keep developers from building a 40-unit supportive housing project. City Council approved a land-use code change at the Social Services Campus earlier this year in support of the plan.
Sheltering could be seen as an impediment to construction for Housing Solutions of the Southwest in its application for low-income housing tax credits to fund the project, city staff members have said in public meetings. The 2018 memo acknowledges permitting and infrastructure for the Social Services Campus could work, but “viewshed impacts to downtown and College Mesa are of concern.”
The off-leash dog park was considered a “convenient location,” but was too visible from the highway corridor and too close to businesses. Further, because of its impact on the off-leash area, the memo said, “it is very likely this location would be met with significant opposition from residents and the business community.”
The site is also includes the presence of uranium tailings and is in the Lightner Creek floodway, making it dangerous for campers.
Both the Social Services Campus and the off-leash area could cost about $200,000 to develop into a sheltering site. Staff members suggest that a “temporary use scenario” could reduce the cost.
Bodo and beyondMost residents in Durango live north of the U.S. Highway 550/160 interchange near Smelter Mountain. Hosting a homeless camp off South Camino del Rio may mitigate impacts to long-term residents.
But southern locations have less access to services and jobs, staff members wrote in the memo. “Campers may be reluctant” to voluntarily shelter at any of the sites.
La Plata County owns property at the end of Everett Street with infrastructure and access to transportation that could make it ideal for a sheltering site. But Bodo Industrial Park covenants prohibit such activity without approval by vote of property owners.
The city of Durango owns Centennial Yard behind a business park on County Road 210. It could accommodate sanitary facilities, potable water and trash cans, and effective management of the camp could reduce its impact to neighbors, staff wrote in the 2018 memo.
But access to services likely would require a means of transportation. The City Operations Department uses the site for “streets and utilities maintenance activities,” and a sheltering designation would require the city to acquire a new property to conduct work currently done at Centennial Yard.
A patch of land near Colorado Highway 3 on a hillside overlooking Santa Rita Park “may not appeal to campers” because of its high visibility. Colorado Department of Transportation owns the plot, which could be prepared for sheltering for less than $200,000.
“Given the visibility of the site from the Hwy 550/160 corridor, as well as the proximity to Parkside Terrace Townhomes and Santa Rita Park, it is likely this location would be met with significant opposition,” according to the memo.
About 6 acres of privately owned land at the south end of Bodo near the Animas River Trail was identified with direct access from La Posta Road. Sheltering there could require transportation services or food delivery, but “the site could afford some privacy for camp residents.”
The proposal is to use 1 acre of the 6-acre property, but “land cost could be substantial.”
”Given the distance from downtown and the relative remoteness of the site,” staff members wrote in the memo, “community support may not be as difficult to garner with appropriate design and a good operational plan.”