Complex Homeless Issue Weighs Heavily on Durango Residents


Dear Durango Community-

What are the biggest issues challenging Durango?

All five candidates running for Durango City Council have repeatedly been asked this question in recent weeks. Our answers are appearing in writing in The Durango Herald and The Durango Telegraph, and have been verbalized at a variety of pre-election forums.

I initially campaigned on the themes of ‘growing our way’, ‘strengthening our infrastructure’ and ‘transparent fiscal oversight’.

However, after listening to the concerns and opinions of thousands of Durango residents in the past few months – via my blog discussions, while going from neighborhood to neighborhood and knocking on doors, and at a variety of forums and guided discussions, I have adjusted my focus.

Yes, we desperately need a 10 year Comprehensive Plan that addresses:

+ Maintaining Durango’s unique characteristics while managing growth creatively and wisely

+ Fostering a healthy, diverse, and competitive economy with good paying jobs, safe and affordable housing, well managed traffic systems for cars, bikes, pedestrians, and public transportation 

+ Strengthening infrastructure = roads, police station facilities, water and sewage treatment, ETC…

+ Transparent fiscal oversight through transparent and trustworthy leadership

…the list goes on …

We must holistically consider the list and realistically calculate the costs to adequately address each item.  Following that, we need input from residents in order to prioritize that list.  After prioritizing, we, as a community, must consider a variety of funding mechanisms.  

YES, there are many important issues competing for our attention, time, and money. 

But there is ONE particular issue right now that has been uppermost in the minds of the majority of citizens of Durango that I have spoken with during my campaign.  From the beginning, my campaign motto has been “Your Vision, Your Values, Your Voice”. My consistent commitment has been to LISTEN to the citizens of Durango, to VIEW Durango through their eyes, to understand their VALUES, and to be their VOICE.

After connecting with so many residents, I have concluded that the single most pressing issue for the majority of Durango residents – and therefore for me – an issue that is going to have a massive impact on this community, both now and in the long term – is the homeless situation in Durango.   

It is a complex issue. Possible responses are governed not just by local statutes, but by federal law. We, as a community, must deal with it, but we must frame our response not only within the boundaries of what is just and achievable on a local level, but what is legally acceptable according to Federal Law. You may remember a blog I wrote last Spring, explaining that until 2014, panhandling was illegal within Durango city limits. With precedence set by a First Amendment Supreme Court case, the ACLU won the case, making it a violation of First Amendment rights to outlaw panhandling. In the two years since the law was changed, downtown panhandlers have become a large and daily downtown presence. 

There is, of course, much to consider – business owners whose economic survival is threatened when the proximity of high pressure panhandlers prompts customer to shop elsewhere… residents who no longer feel safe on our river trail and in our parks… homeowners who must confront homeless campers in their backyards,…and, of course, how to best show true, make-a-difference concern and compassion for the homeless. 

Homelessness in Durango is a major issue in and of itself – but it is by no means a ‘stand-alone’ issue.  If not effectively addressed, it will exacerbate most, if not all, of the challenges already facing Durango, threatening or causing further strains on infrastructure, the unique character of Durango, the local economy, Durango’s job market, city budget, etc…

We must proactively address the situation. We need to support local non-profits who are collectively spending significant time, energy and resources.  We must research the successes other communities have experienced, where such successes occur. We must support enforcement of local laws designed to protect business and personal property, and we must brainstorm appropriate social services to help homeless people move toward healthy independence. We need to make this a priority immediately. 


THANK YOU for bearing with this City Council race as we, the candidates, bombard you with mailings, dominate the print media, pass out yard signs, and unexpectedly knock on your doors.  There are five candidates who care about Durango and want to represent you on City Council.

It is an important time in our community. Thank you for your participation in this process – thank you for your encouragement, thank you for your confidence in me, thank you for allowing me into your lives and sharing your values and your vision with me.

My promise is what it has been from the beginning:  YOUR vision, YOUR values, YOUR voice.

Melissa Youssef
Blogger, ‘Your Front Row Seat’ AND Durango City Council Candidate

Focusing on Issues and Initiatives Significant to All who Call Durango Home

P.S. – Please DO remember that you’re invited to add your comments beneath any of my blog posts on my website You can also hit reply to this e-mail or contact me directly at Please don’t hesitate to let me know what you’d like to see more of and thank you so much for being an important part of my community here on “Your Front Row Seat.”



  • Richard Leavitt

    Just returned this morning from walking the river trail behind walmart. I went off trail to get to the river and came across a mound of trash just off trail. This is significant only in that is was grouped together, as there are wrappers, boxes, empty beer cans and liquor bottles strewn between the paved path and the river. I know most people would turn around, but I wanted to get down to our beautiful river, tramp through the woods, and reach a place I like to fish. Before I got to the bank I came on a tent, more trash, used toilet paper in the bushes, and there were sleeping bags hanging in the trees. I’m a big guy, but this scene is not just disgusting, it is more than a little creepy.

    I understand the need for outreach programs to homeless. I want the ill to have access to medicine and people fed. Sure, panhandling downtown is a nuisance.

    But what I really want is the camping bans in our city properties strictly enforced so we can all enjoy our public lands and prevent them from being taken over by squatters.

    It won’t last, but this year I’ll focus my time behind walmart on our annual Animas River Cleanup Day. Heck, the whole crew could stay busy for a few days down there.

  • Jeffery DeCelles

    Thank you for taking a courageous direction and steering the discussion directly at homelessness. This is where politics requires heart, head, and hands.
    I have no easy answers, but salute the willingness to engage this problem.
    You will have my vote.


  • David Rick

    My wife and I stopped going downtown Durango at night a couple of years ago. We do not feel safe downtown anymore.

  • Julie Kolln

    Congratulations for taking on such a controversial issue. If you figure out how Durango can solve this issue, please pass it on to Portland. The homeless epidemic here has reached a boiling point. It is in the news every single day with different approaches being tried and the homeless being repeatedly moved from one spot to another. It is such a complex and heart breaking problem with no clear solution – I wish you the best of luck as you move forward. I am loving reading your blogs and following life in Durango!

  • Jennifer Prosser

    I think we need to separate ‘professional panhandlers’ from the actual ‘homeless’ residents of our community. There is a huge difference. When we lump them together, it makes the issue more complex, because in reality it is two different issues. The people flooding into our town now to panhandle throughout the tourist season are doing this by choice. I would like to see them held accountable for the trash they leave in their camping areas, their obvious public intoxication, and the other things they do that affect our community. If they are going to live here, at the very least they should be required to keep their camping areas clean. If they don’t they should get a daily citation and get locked up for the summer if they don’t pay them. Do that to a few of the pro panhandlers, and they will quickly realize Durango is no longer a profitable town for them.
    ‘Our’ homeless population is a different story. All of us who work downtown know who they are, and often their stories. Many of these people are mentally ill, or substance abusers, who have been kicked out of most of the social resources available to them, and so live on the streets. We have to do what we can to help them, at the very least make sure social services knows who all of them are and what their story is so we can figure out how to help them. Police and Dispatch often know a lot about these folks, perhaps there should be a coming together so they can communicate about these folks.

  • Jennifer James

    I agree with all the comments here, in-particular with jennifer prosser’s comment. I have no tolerance for “professional panhandlers” and great compassion for the actual homeless. I would love to be a part of what my new hometown decides to do about this situation.

  • Daniel Heintzman

    I understand the legality of homeless rights, but we should consider the health & safety of all. I recall an article about this issue in cities in Hawaii and the laws dealing with laying on public sidewalks as illegal. This may have some merit in the public health of the homeless and the safety of all.

  • Matt Vincent

    Unfortunately, the Eighth amendment has made the homeless situation a problem for all of Colorado. If the city can’t provide a place for them to camp, then they can’t enforce the No Camping law per lawsuits filed by the ACLU in other areas of Colorado. The city is enforcing that law and has pushed the homeless people into the hills surrounding Durango most specifically the area above the Tech Center where the sheriff’s department has allowed camping in a “No Camping Area”. It has made for an unregulated , illegal area without any services that is absolutely disgusting. The amount of trash and human waste up there would repulse anyone that walks up in that area of Overend Park. Not to mention the fact that they are having open fires right above Durango. A homeless camp up in Boulder County was the culprit of the Sunshine fire in March. Estimated cost of that fire was more than $730,000.00!
    The city has been trying to solve this situation for the last 20 years. Endless ideas have been thrown around with no immediate solution acted upon, other than send them to the hills. The City will say that there is a lot going on, but with any government entity, it’s a long complicated process that faces too many obstacles to actually make impactful forward progress.

    In order to reduce the homeless population, there needs to be systems in place to help them seek the services they need. If they aren’t willing to seek the services then they should move on to another town that will let them do their thing there. The City and County need to work together to provide a better transitional housing situation than shoving them into the woods in disgusting and unsafe camps. Housing is too expensive to build and these people are willing and able to camp. Provide them a regulated campground that can be patrolled and have access to services, like portajohns, trash, water, controlled burning area, etc. and the problem will more centralized rather than spread out our around the county. If there is a place for them to go, then all of the illegal camps around Durango can then be shut down rather than ignored.

    There is a city owned parcel of land above the Manna Soup Kitchen and below the cemetery. It was formerly known as the Jaycee Campground. It is out of site of the city and provides no traffic though residential areas. This is an IDEAL spot to place a “regulated” campground for these people. Easy access for all of the services necessary for a transitional 90-120 day camping area. It’s close to the shelter and to the soup kitchen so it essentially creates a campus for the people that need these services. While its not ideal and ideal would be housing, that’s not realistic to happen in short order or affordably in Durango. This solution could be easily implemented with very low capital costs. There are entities with funds available to make this happen.

    The theory is that if we provide them with a safe place to go, where they can make forward progress in their lives, it will help to reduce the homeless population. If they aren’t willing to make forward progress then send them on their way out of our town.

    Please check out as it is a place that has the same concept.

    Contact City and County Council to let them know how you feel about this subject and comment if you feel this is a viable solution.

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