Durango residents advocate for homeless campground

By Mary Shinn, The Durango Herald

DURANGO — In the year that Sonia Horsting has lived on Ella Vita Court in Durango, she’s seen many people make their way up the hill to camp north of the Tech Center.

Some people living in the forest walked by quietly and others were a bit more intrusive. For example, one woman passed out on her front porch and another woman knocked on her back door asking for help because her friend was being harmed by a boyfriend, Horsting said.

“Last summer was pretty rough,” she said.

The situation improved after the trailhead at the end of Ella Vita Court was moved to the other side of the street and the old trail was filled in with a berm, but there is still work to do, she said.

Horsting and her neighbors are interested in a permanent and regulated campground to improve safety and provide better sanitation for those who are regularly camping on La Plata County property. It’s an idea that officials in town have explored in recent months.

The Ella Vita Court homeowners association, which includes 13 households, asked city staff earlier this year to consider putting the campground on a site near other services. The group suggested a site on a city lot along Avenida del Sol near Manna, a soup kitchen, near housing provided by Volunteers of America and Housing Solutions for the Southwest.

But not everyone agrees it is the best site for a camp. Housing Solutions for the Southwest staff, who work to provide transitional housing and prevent homelessness, say the land might be better used for housing that would accept homeless people with drug and alcohol addictions because Durango does not have any shelter for people who aren’t sober.

Insufficient shelter is part of the reason constant camping is allowed north of the Tech Center, La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith recently told Durango City Council.

If the county arrests people for sleeping in public places, when they have nowhere else to go, it could be violating their constitutional rights and punishing them for being homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Instead of shutting down camps only to have them reappear, the Sheriff’s Office has worked with campers since 2015, encouraging them to govern themselves and keep the makeshift camp clean.

After talking with the Sheriff’s Office, Ella Vita resident Liana Smith said she understands a designated area for camping was needed to better regulate those staying in the forest.

However, instead of a hidden camp, residents of Ella Vita Court want to see a space for campers that would be safe and sanitary with bathrooms, water and road access, Liana Smith said.

“All of us need to come together as a community and support this effort in a way that helps everybody,” she said.

MORE PEOPLE LIVING OUTSIDE

A survey by Housing Solutions for the Southwest found in January, there were 91 homeless people living in Durango. Most were staying in the Durango Community Shelter and 35 were living outside. In 2013, the survey identified 104 homeless people, of which 12 were unsheltered.

The winter survey is more likely to identify year-round homeless residents than counts at other times of the year, Transitional Housing Program Manager Lora Sholes said.

Homeless people were surveyed at the Durango Community Shelter, Manna, churches, Durango Public Library and the La Plata Family Center. The survey did not count people who are couch-surfing, staying in motels or in some form of transitional housing, said Elizabeth Salkind, executive director at Housing Solutions.

“This would be what I would call a minimum number,” she said of the count.

Kathy Tonnessen, executive director of Manna, has observed a steady decline in those eating at the soup kitchen this year compared with last year, which she attributes to an improving economy.

Seniors, working families and homeless people all come to Manna for meals, she said.

“Our numbers are down again this year by 10 percent,” she said.

HOUSING COSTS RISING

While the economy has improved, the cost of living across the state increased almost three times as much as wages in the last decade, making it tough for people to afford housing, Salkind said. During 2015, the median rent increased from $995 to $1,214 in town, she said.

While the cost of living is cheaper outside Colorado, it can be expensive for people to move away, Sholes said.

There is also high demand for the 453 affordable housing units and about 300 federally funded housing choice vouchers in La Plata County. The waiting list for vouchers through Housing Solutions is closed because it is so long, Sholes said.

CAMPGROUND CONSIDERATIONS

In 2015, Housing Solutions explored building a 30-unit permanent supportive housing project to help meet this need on the site that the Ella Vita residents suggested as a space for a campground. It’s an idea that Salkind believes could be feasible.

Permanent supportive housing programs typically provide substance abuse counselors and other staff to help residents achieve stability in a safe environment, she said

If the campground was built on the social services campus, it would share a cul-de-sac with Housing Solution homes, including units for families and dorm-style housing for Durango Adult Education Center students, which Salkind does not think is compatible.

“The residents are getting on their feet. … If we have one destabilizing person or family, it can destabilize the whole community,” she said.

Jeremiah Jim, who recently moved into the cul-de-sac, said he would be worried about campers using drugs and alcohol and constantly asking for help.

If the community pursues a campground, Tonnessen said, it would have to be built close to the center of town for services to be successful.

“People don’t want to be isolated; they are already isolated enough. They want to be part of a community,” she said.

Lt. Ed Aber of the Sheriff’s Office, who has worked with homeless campers to establish clean camps, said the homeless community is split on the idea of a permanent regulated camp.

“If that plan proceeds, I think it’s imperative that we get that community engaged and involved in designing it and being a part of it, so it’s not viewed as a concentration camp,” he said.

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Information from: Durango Herald

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