In response to public outcry about panhandling, the city of Durango’s coalition on homelessness convened for the first time in June. By its members’ own admissions, at this point, the coalition – far from having a solution – barely understands the scope of the problem.
Yet people on the frontline of homelessness in Durango describe an emergency.
“I am watching people deteriorate before my eyes: 30-year-old men shriveling from meth; girls who are so beaten down by life they can’t even carry a conversation,” said Philippe LeFevre, who works at Manna Soup Kitchen and has lived in Durango without a home for years. “We’re not really addressing the illness of homelessness, and if you have it, you just get killed or exiled.”
Numbers from Manna Soup Kitchen, (70,000 meals served in 2014,) the Durango Community Shelter, (more than 500 overnight guests in 2014) suggest as many as 1,000 people experience homelessness at some point each year in Durango.
Knowing exactly how many homeless people there are is a challenge, because neither the city, La Plata County nor the state keeps a reliable count of Durango’s homeless population.
County Judge Martha Minot, who runs the La Plata County behavioral health and drug courts, said even without hard numbers, it’s obvious that continuing to ignore the needs of Durango’s homeless population “is not cost-efficient, for anyone.”
The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless found that the average homeless person costs the state $43,000 a year in emergency-room visits, jail costs and other expenses, while providing housing for that person would cost just $17,000.
Sixth Judicial District Attorney Todd Risberg said attempts to banish homeless people from Durango and make homelessness less visible downtown are wrongheaded, citing a recent ban on panhandling that the City Council abandoned after the American Civil Liberties Union criticized it as unconstitutional.
“Like it or not, these are community members, and driving them out of town doesn’t seem like the right thing to do,” Risberg said.
But when it comes to community solutions, there is no silver bullet, said Manna Soup Kitchen’s Culinary Manager Joseph Prekup.
Within our sociologically diverse homeless population, there are mothers who need jobs, teenagers seeking safety, veterans battered by alcoholism, retirees struggling with mental illness. Often, homeless people need help with multiple issues simultaneously.
A handful of organizations serve this population in one way or another – and to different extents: the Community Shelter, Manna Soup Kitchen, Southwest Safehouse, Southwest Center for Independence, Axis Mental Health, Women’s Resource Center, Crossroads at Grandview – among others.
But in rural Colorado, Manna Soup Kitchen’s Executive Director Kathy Tonnessen said resources are scant in comparison to the help so many desperately require.
And public animosity toward panhandlers in Durango forces organizations that appeal to the public for funding to engage in a kind of respectability politics, packaging their clients as “the deserving poor,” LeFevre said.
Durango’s Community Shelter serves as a vital lifeline for many people who are homeless in Durango. Yet, since panhandling started making recent news headlines in Durango, director Sarada Leavenworth has spent hours battling the public’s widespread confusion of panhandlers with the city’s larger homeless population and assuring donors that, in fact, panhandlers get kicked out of the shelter.
“I tell everybody not to give to panhandlers, because it’s not the best use of a dollar,” she said.
Leavenworth said the vast majority of people staying at the shelter are “hardworking families who are doing everything they can to help themselves. They had a crisis.”
Leavenworth runs a successful program: 79 percent of the people who enroll in it eventually secure their own housing.
But many people do not qualify for help.
As a rule, the shelter rejects felons and people who appear intoxicated or disruptive, and it ejects those who don’t make sufficient progress applying for jobs.
As a result, many of Durango’s homeless aren’t getting help. Instead, they’re going to jail, to detox or to the emergency room.
Jason Cloudt, gardener at Manna, said many routinely drop off people who are mentally ill or intoxicated off at the kitchen – though it provides no shelter or health care.
Cloudt said watching people who desperately need care get shunted from one indifferent, overwhelmed and under-resourced institution to another is morally embarrassing.
“It happens all the time. There’s a lot of finger-pointing between agencies,” Cloudt said. “And it seems like the people who need the most help don’t get help.”
Durango Police Department Lt. Ray Shupe said each person who is homeless requires different kinds of aid and acknowledged that police struggle to get homeless people plugged into the specific services they need, saying that’s why the work of the city’s coalition on homelessness was so important.
Prekup said because local support for the homeless isn’t centralized, homeless people are often forced to navigate a complicated series of bureaucracies, paperwork and delays in order to access the services that do exist in Durango.
The details can be overwhelming for a person who doesn’t have a place to sleep, shower and store belongings.
“There’s no centralized door; that’s the first place to start,” said Gordon South, Axis Health’s homeless and outreach coordinator.
Shupe said he hopes the police – who often interface with Durango’s homeless population – can become conduits in connecting homeless people with existing resources by adopting a “no wrong door” policy.
But policymakers agree that the resources available to homeless people in Durango – even if streamlined – will never prove adequate without the community first figuring out how to provide people who are homeless with housing.
Historically, programs to curb chronic homelessness have been structured like reward systems for good behavior: If you kick heroin, then you get housing. Over decades, sociological studies by governments and university researchers has established that these programs rarely succeed.
But a new national paradigm first developed in the 1990s by New York University psychologist Sam Tsemberis radically reverses the traditional model of anti-homelessness programs, so that addressing a person’s lack of housing comes first, and every other issue – from drug addiction to therapy – comes second.
According to the “housing-first” model, from the start, officials should give homeless people a budget and help them search for apartments. Treatment for other problems, such as mental illness, begins once they’ve moved into a place they like.
Data from Salt Lake City and other places where housing-first programs have been adopted show this fresh approach is staggeringly more successful than the old. Utah’s Homeless Task Force credits Tsemberis’ housing-first program with bringing the state’s once-soaring rate of chronic homeless rate down to nearly “functional zero.”
Research by groups such as Pathways to Housing shows that once someone has his or her own home, that person is much more likely to beat addiction, gain employment and address mental-health issues. In the end, it’s also much less expensive for the public.
Jennifer Lopez, director of Homeless Initiatives for the Colorado Governor’s Office, said providing housing for the homeless is the “basic building block to long-term stability.”
“From the state perspective, we continue to see housing as health care for our most vulnerable,” she said.
Lopez said in fact, Utah-style housing-first programs have already been successfully implemented in towns across Colorado, including Redtail Ponds in Fort Collins, 1175 Lee Hill in Boulder and St. Martin’s Place II in Grand Junction.
“Last year, a team of individuals from Durango worked over seven months to design such a project but didn’t receive the local support they needed to move forward,” she said.
According to Zac Schraffner, the effort to bring a housing-first program to Durango – led by representatives from the La Plata Family Center, La Plata Homes Fund, La Plata County Regional Housing Alliance and Housing Solutions for the Southwest – failed after the Durango team was unable to secure a lease for a parcel of city-owned property near Manna, Hilltop and the VOA shelter.
Judge Minot said if Durango is to solve its homeless crisis, “housing has to be the first step,” then a housing-first program makes sense.
Minot, who heads a committee to investigate housing options for court and probation clients, said Durango landlords are often so wary of people who appear to be homeless that they will reject tenants with federal vouchers.
“Even people who have a payable coupon for a certain amount a month can’t find a unit to rent,” she said.
A solution to homelessness is going to require political will, more money, robust public discourse and smart policy.
“We’re not there yet,” said city of Durango Business Development Coordinator Ariel Wishkovsky, who is coordinating the city’s homelessness coalition. “But I’m optimistic.”
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This story has been corrected from its original version.