Down but not out in Durango
Durango Community Shelter gets homeless back on their feet

Paula Rose Downer, 6, gets a birds-eye view of lunch while Julie Stanley tends to the stove at the Durango Community Shelter, which is run by Volunteers of America. John Gamble, VOA division director and supervisor of the shelter, said the majority of shelter residents are local individuals and families who have fallen on hard times./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

For most, the word “homeless” conjures up images of a middle-aged, male drifter with an alcohol problem. John Gamble, Volunteers of America division director and supervisor of the Durango Community Shelter, is the first to admit that Durango has a growing homeless problem. However, Gamble adds that the majority of Durango’s homeless population does not fit the stereotype. Most of the people seeking relief at the Durango Community Shelter are local individuals and families who have fallen on hard times.

“ A lot of people think of the homeless person as single, male and chemically dependent or chronically ill,” Gamble said. “We have all types in Durango, but predominantly we have individuals and families that are trying to make it in this community.”

On the evening of Monday, Aug. 11, 16 men, nine women and nine children spent the night in the community shelter. A week earlier 41 people called the renovated house on Durango’s west side home. People have been utilizing the Durango Community Shelter since it first opened its doors in February of 1991.

“ The reality and humanity is that these people are not different people than us,” Gamble said.

This is sentiment shared by the Durango Police Department. According to Sgt. Tony Archuleta, incidents involving homeless people are nearly nonexistent.

“ There’s really nothing that we deal with that’s out of the ordinary,” he said. “Probably our biggest thing is occasionally people will hide their backpacks or belongings, and we’ll get calls reporting them as lost.”

As for crimes of a violent nature, Archuleta said, “I can’t even think of a single call on things as simple as homeless people pandering for money.”

Last year, the Durango Community Shelter provided housing to 561 people in need and served 28,233 meals. Gamble said he expects that number to grow this year and cites a growing discrepancy between wages and the cost of housing as the cause.

“I think times are tough right now,” he said. “I think the job market is tighter, and in our community, the cost of housing is impacting people’s ability to make it.

“ The wage scale hasn’t changed in a lot of years,” Gamble continued. “In the same time, the cost of living here has. Since I bought my home in 1990, its value has tripled. My wages have not.”

Durango Mayor Virginia Castro echoed this assessment, saying that homelessness is not something that only happens to other people. “I think one of the main things to think about when we talk bout homelessness is that in today’s economy, most of us could be just a month or two away from that condition.”

Tough love

Gamble said that the shelter operates on the principle of a “hand up rather than a

Christian Chemero unlocks a community bicycle available for use by the shelter residents./Photo by Todd Newcomer

hand out.” People are welcome to stay for two weeks, assuming they meet strict criteria.

“ Typically, when you come here, assuming you’re willing to remain chemical and violence free and participate in a daily chore, you can stay for two weeks,” Gamble said. “On any given day most of the able-bodied adults are going to work. It’s not like itjust a place to hang out and crash.”

In this way, the shelter encourages and helps people to get back on their feet, according to Gamble. “There are things that one would never know about trying to start over and get an anchor in life,” he said. “If you walk up to an employer with a backpack, they’ll probably pick the next guy. If you’re down and out and only have the clothes on your back, how do you get clean?”

To this end, the shelter provides not just a safe place to live but a semi-permanent address, a phone number, laundry facilities and three square meals a day. Once the two weeks have expired, residents have an opportunity to apply for a transitional-living program.

“ To be accepted, they have to have a full-time job,” Gamble said. “They have to be, in our assessment, really working on some goals. If they are, they can stay for up to three months in transitional living.”

A nominal rent is charged, and while Gamble said that it represents some revenue for the shelter, it has another purpose as well. “It’s also a recognition that you shouldn’t get out of the practice of paying your way through life,” he said.

Back on track

Gamble cited a long list of success stories. In the shelter’s first year, it helped a family of Durango natives bounce back. The family had moved to Oklahoma and lost everything when their plan didn’t work out. The shelter enabled them to get back on their feet in Durango, regain housing and move back into normal life. Last year, the shelter provided housing for a family of 13 that had lost their home and a family member to fire. After three months, the family was able to move into a new home and start over again.

“ We see a lot of families and individuals get on their feet and get housing,” Gamble said.

On the other hand, he said that there is another side to the local homeless population. “There’s another group, and they’re in any community, and they’re just barely making it,” Gamble said. “Those folks are part of our town, and they can make it most of the time, but they’re the most vulnerable.”

Regardless of their prospects for success, the shelter continues to extend help to these people. “From time to time, there are people who we give a hand up to, knowing we may see them again,” Gamble said.

And while he said that not every homeless person in Durango is being helped right now, the Durango Community Shelter is doing a more than adequate job.
“ We do turn away people from time to time,” he said. “We can be full.”

In spite of this fact, Gamble said that the shelter more than meets the needs of the Durango community. “I’m not interested in expanding bed capacity,” he said. “I think we do enough for a town of this size. We’re doing an awful lot to help people get back on their feet.”

Local support

Volunteers of America, a national organization, operates not only the Durango Community Shelter but the Southwest Safehouse, a domestic abuse shelter, and the VOA Thrift Store. Gamble said that the organization draws on some federal funding and the proceeds from the thrift store, but that the State of Colorado provides no support for homeless shelters. He noted that the majority of dollars for the Durango Community Shelter are local.

“ The majority of our funds come from community support and local donors,” he said. “Local government is also quite supportive. Both the city of Durango and La Plata County have been very generous.”

Elaborating on the city’s reasons for supporting the shelter, Castro said: “These are respectable people who have lost their way. I think it’s really important that as a society we take care of these people in need.”

Citing instances of abundant support by local citizens, Gamble referred to $250,000 that was given outright by an anonymous local donor to the shelter for upgrades and an addition. He noted that hundreds of community members come in and cook dinner on a nightly basis throughout the year.

“ I think when you share with people that women and children are sleeping under the bridge, they find their pocketbooks,” Gamble said.

For more information on the Durango Community Shelter, call 259-1255.





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