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Housing issues must become top priority

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Thanksgiving and the holidays are wonderful if you are sheltered, warm and fed. The holidays also provide a strong reminder for those of us who are comfortable that we have an obligation to help care for those who are not.

So many people of all ages and walks of life are on the margins of society, many through no fault of their own. They include many seniors, many people working hard at low wages and the young – including our children and grandchildren. In the Durango area, we have at least 150 homeless people and many more families with children who are “couch-surfing” and living in cars. The numbers will only increase with rental evictions resulting from job losses because of COVID-19.

We really have only Volunteers of America providing limited shelter, primarily to women and children, and several organizations offering vouchers for hotels (largely because of COVID-19). We have no significant permanent shelter, only temporary camping permitted at Purple Cliffs (which is due to expire in May). Also because of COVID-19, many public buildings are closed and there are few places where those without permanent shelter can go inside to stay warm.

So much talk and hard work has been done by so many wonderful people and institutions locally, but I submit it is time for our leaders in state, county and local governments to take positive leadership action to ensure that the intolerable conditions facing so many people be solved once and for all.

The voters in the city and county of Denver just passed Ballot Measure 2B, which approved a 0.25% sales and use tax to fund housing, shelter and services for people experiencing homelessness, and to build housing and expand rental assistance and supportive social services. The actual cost to consumers is only 2.5 cents on a $10 purchase.

Analysis of this year’s La Plata County sales tax revenue projects that if a similar measure passed here, this initiative could easily raise $500,000 annually, which could be used to manage permanent and temporary shelter; support the agencies that are already housing and feeding the needy; and acquire land, pay for infrastructure and build more affordable homes.

Ending poverty, housing the homeless, providing affordable rentals and making homeownership affordable are all linked.

I call on our councilors, commissioners, political parties, businesses and nonprofits to pass a comparable ballot measure in La Plata County. The county, city of Durango, towns of Bayfield and Ignacio, and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe need to come together again, as they did when the Regional Housing Alliance was formed, to create a single organization to address these issues. That organization should include members from all those governmental organizations and from the social services community and concerned citizens.

The free market has barely made progress in affordable housing because of the high cost of land and infrastructure. The passage of this ballot measure will provide the needed financing to finally create permanent and temporary shelter and affordable neighborhoods.

If you don’t want people freezing to death in their tents, camping in your backyards or on your front porches, and panhandling on city streets, it is time to put in place the funding to manage, house and feed these people.

Our local governments must take a leadership role to ensure that the decades of talking in meetings and hand-wringing and wishful thinking are over, and that we have a combined public-private partnership addressing shelter and housing issues, with a stream of funding to provide the needed land and infrastructure to create housing that is affordable and attainable.

I call on all citizens to see that this important ballot measure gets approved in 2021.

Daniel Morgenstern is a longtime advocate for homeless people.

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