Durango City Council and La Plata County Commission took a significant step forward in a joint session Thursday addressing the possibility of establishing a so-called “managed camp” for unsheltered people.
Officials’ hopes are raised about a potential site on land owned by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The 2,700-acre CPW site is adjacent to city land and located just beyond Bodo Industrial Park. City and county staff members will meet with CPW on Monday to discuss whether the 5 to 10 acres needed for a managed camp would be available for a swap with the county.
Officials at the Thursday meeting agreed the land could be perfect for a camp sanctioned and funded by local government. The group also finally dismissed the DeNier building as a possible congregate shelter because of anticipated neighborhood opposition and other issues.
The idea of managed camps has taken hold across the nation as an affordable, if partial, way to address homelessness. In December, two such camps opened in Denver; Grand Junction and Alamosa also have managed camps. Others are being created in Morgan and Aurora, according to housing consultant Jenn Lopez.
Sparked by COVID-19 and the need to create safe shelter outside to prevent spreading infection in congregate indoor settings, managed camps have risen to the top of the list of “best practices” for quickly and efficiently creating shelter, Lopez said.
The idea isn’t entirely new: Las Cruces, New Mexico, is home to Camp Hope, a managed camp that has been operating for a decade.
Managed camps are cheaper to build and operate than shelters. They provide safe, contained spaces (often fenced) with tents, bathrooms, showers and sanitation, warming rooms, places to eat and other necessities – plus on-site, 24-hour staff. They make it possible for social services agencies to provide assistance in a centralized location – such as food, health care and help finding jobs and permanent housing.
Residents may include people who use drugs and alcohol, but those with serious addiction problems or who are violent are not allowed to remain. Ideally, sober people, families with children, and LGBTQ people are among those who can find safe space in a managed camp.
It won’t replace the need for primitive camping in Durango – such as Purple Cliffs – because some people don’t want to live in a controlled environment. Others may have addiction or mental health problems that make them inappropriate for a managed camp population.
Of course, some Durangoans will oppose the establishment of a managed camp – no matter how well operated – anywhere near their homes or businesses. Here, as in other cities across the nation, opponents have shouted down establishment of camps or shelters, and been labeled NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard).
But it’s possible that Durangoans’ fears about a nearby managed camp could be mitigated with education about how it would operate. It’s even possible residents could vote to choose the site, perhaps in a ranked-voting election, which might help diminish blowback.
No one knows exactly how long the site swap with CPW, if approved, would work, or how long it would take to get a managed camp up and running. In the meantime, the county should agree to extend the life of the camp at Purple Cliffs – which officials had hoped to close by May 1 – until and unless another primitive camping site can be found. A managed camp isn’t a “solution” to homelessness. It’s one stop on a continuum of means to address homelessness – and a step in the right direction for Durango.
No site was selected, nor any vote taken at Thursday’s meeting. But councilors and commissioners seemed to have crossed a threshold into true collaboration.
Let’s keep up the momentum.