Out of a home?: When Montezuma County sells its Justice Building, the Bridge shelter may have to move — but where?

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MONTEZUMA COUNTY JUSTICE BUILDING USED BY THE BRIDGE EMERGENCY SHELTER

When Montezuma County completes its new courthouse, it plans to sell the Justice Building, which is used at night by the Bridge Emergency Shelter. Photo by Sonja Horoshko

Cortez, which offers an overnight refuge for the homeless, may soon be out of a home itself.

The construction of Montezuma County’s new courthouse is having a domino effect on the entities that use the old Justice Building in Centennial Park, including the Bridge. As the county prepares to move its operations – county court and probation offices – into the new, $8 million courthouse, county officials are hoping to rid themselves of the aging facility.

That means the Bridge, which has operated rent-free in the building for over a decade, may have to go elsewhere – unless a deal can be struck with the Justice Building’s new owners, whoever they may be, that would allow the shelter to continue operating there.

Representatives of the county, the city, and the shelter have been meeting to look for a solution. But the discussion raises some tough questions:

  • Is the city’s park system the best location for a shelter that serves not only the homeless, but the intoxicated?
  • If not, what is the best location?
  • And if another location is selected, how can an organization that relies on community generosity for much of its operating budget afford to buy, build, or renovate a new home?

“We’ve been living in limbo for awhile,” said Laurie Knutson, executive director for the Bridge. “When they first talked about building a new courthouse, we started asking what was going to happen to us. For over two years we haven’t gotten an answer.”

Shelter from the storm

Every night from mid-October to mid-April for the past 10 years, as shadows lengthen and the air grows chilly in Centennial Park, people have gathered at the back entrance of the Justice Building. At 6 p.m. – no earlier, no later – the door opens and they are invited into a haven of light and warmth. It’s a modest haven, with concrete floors and walls, where clients sleep several to a room. But it offers a hot supper served by volunteers; an evening of TV-watching, conversation, card games and camaraderie; and breakfast the next morning.

Then, at 7 a.m., the clients are turned back out into the cold to fend for themselves for 11 hours while the building is used for other purposes.

The Bridge had its beginnings in an even more modest operation dubbed the Christian Emergency Shelter that operated out of The Chapel, a building south of Cortez on Highway 491. The effort involved volunteers driving a van around town, looking in parks, fields, and other likely locations for intoxicated folks who were in danger of freezing. They were shaken awake on benches and rousted from under bushes. (Sometimes they were even allowed to hide their bottles for retrieval the next day.) They were brought to the shelter for the night, then driven back to town the next morning.

That largely ad-libbed, informal effort evolved into the Bridge, which began operating in the Justice Building in 2006, occupying the space left vacant when the county jail was moved to its current location. The Bridge’s future was never assured – year after year, its directors had to ask permission from the county to keep utilizing the space – but every year they’ve been granted permission to stay. Funding was likewise never guaranteed, and in 2012, the Bridge nearly shut down for lack of money.

But it survived, and has kept growing and adding services.

A changing clientele

The nonprofit now has paid staff, though it still relies on volunteer help, especially with fundraisers.

The shelter is tightly run. Incoming guests are breath-tested; those who are intoxicated are put in a separate room and aren’t allowed to eat with the others. Bridge staff work to help clients — many of whom are military veterans — obtain medical care, housing, schooling and counseling as needed. Staff members work with the day-labor program, also housed in the Justice Building, so guests needing temporary jobs can find them.

Over time, the clientele has changed. A facility whose main purpose was once to keep the intoxicated from freezing now serves mainly sober people. (In the 2015-16 season, 21 percent of the total 6,035 bed-nights were for those assigned to the alcohol unit.) Strikingly, of the 323 different individuals served last season, 26 percent were 55 or older, and one was 81.

Many, according to Knutson, are caught in the local housing shortage, unable to save enough to put down a security deposit and a first and last month’s rent on an apartment.

“Rents have soared across the country and there is no place for many low-income people,” she said. “The shelter has become the de facto residence for people who can’t afford other places.” Community leaders agree that the services provided by the Bridge are invaluable. But just where and how it can continue to operate remains an unanswered question.

‘Untenable’

Some tension exists between people who believe the shelter should remain in the park or at least in a central location in Cortez, and others who suggest it consider finding a new site altogether, perhaps even out of town.

“The folks with the Bridge think it should be somewhere between Empire and Seventh Street,” Cortez City Manager Shane Hale told the Free Press. “They have some good reasons. My position has been more, ‘Why don’t we take a look at what is in the greater Cortez area? Is there something else that would work?’ If not, then go to the county commissioners and say there’s nothing available.”

One suggestion has been to clean up and renovate the deteriorating M & M Truck Stop, which sits outside city limits several miles south of Cortez on Highway 491, to house the Bridge. However, Knutson said that option simply isn’t viable.

“The [shelter] board is committed to remaining a low-barrier shelter, which we’re very proud of, and that means access,” Knutson said. “We aren’t halfway to Mancos, halfway to Towaoc, halfway to anywhere.

“For people to get all the services they need, they need to be able to walk to reach us. Here’s the reality about the M&M – there are no sidewalks outside the city core. We have an increasingly elderly population. I could not walk there with a full backpack, and someone who is 70 couldn’t either. It’s an untenable location.”

Hale said he understands those concerns. “Laurie says they can’t really shuttle people down there in a van because they’re not on a schedule, they may not have a watch, they may not be thinking about it. And we certainly don’t want people walking down 491.

“I just don’t want us to limit the discussion based on, forgive the language, half-assed research. If there is something south or north or east or west of town, we should look at it. If it doesn’t work for other reasons, we can reject it based on what we know, rather than on what we presupposed.”

Hale said the question needs to be asked: If the community were starting from scratch, would it locate a homeless shelter in the city’s central park system?

Problems in the parks

It’s a question many have raised.

Police are regularly called to the sprawling complex, and to the library at the south end of Centennial Park, to deal with complaints about drunkenness, indecent exposure, and disturbing the peace. Some involve Bridge clients; some don’t. However, a portion of the public firmly believes that the Bridge attracts street people to the parks and library, and if it were moved, problems would be reduced.

“I have been vocal about the fact we have a lot of issues in our park system,” Hale said. “There are people who are loud or violent or exposing themselves, things like that. That’s bad PR for the city. I don’t want our young mothers in the area to choose not to go to the city park.

“However, I don’t think that’s necessarily reflective of the Bridge. You can be drunk in the park and also have a home.

“Also, most of our issues in the park are in the summertime when the Bridge is not operating. We do have probably more interactions with the library in the winter, and some are not as favorable as we would like.”

Hale said this is the time to consider other options. “The Bridge has been in the Justice Building because it was the only space available, but if they aren’t able to stay there, let’s look at an opportunity to go someplace else. A shelter could be designed as a shelter.

“I think reinvesting in the Justice Building is silly. Renovating some buildings is a labor of love. With that one, it is just labor. What about the Justice Building is worth saving?”

Convenient location

For Knutson, the answers are obvious. The building is centrally located, easily accessible by foot from most parts of Cortez. The police department is a short distance away; police can be called in case of problems and can easily bring clients to the facility.

The space now used by the Bridge has been divided into eight sleeping rooms, each with a bathroom and shower. After many years, the facility finally has a fully functional kitchen as well.

“To re-create all that would be hugely expensive,” she said.

The shelter operates on a tight budget of about $220,000 annually. Roughly one-third comes from grants, one-third from the community (donations by individuals, businesses, churches, and board members), and one-third through fundraisers and governmental contributions.

“We cannot afford to buy the building,” Knutson said. “We’ve been gifted with free rent and utilities all these years, and we know that will be coming to an end. As an organization that is growing up, we realize we can carry some of the load.

“All kinds of options are being pursued by myself, the board, and the city.”

Knutson doesn’t see many alternative sites. “If we’re right near Main Street, or in the heart of downtown, or in a residential area, I don’t think that’s a win-win for the community.”

She said she knows there are issues with people hanging out in the park and library, but she doesn’t believe removing the Bridge from the park will solve the problem.

“Libraries across the country have become the day shelter for homeless people. That is not acceptable and it’s not the purpose of the library, but people will find places where they can be reasonably comfortable.”

‘Need to be transparent’

At an August meeting of the Montezuma County Commission, chairman Larry Don Suckla said he was “constantly being bombarded” by concerns about the Justice Building becoming a vacant eyesore once the new courthouse is completed. And a representative of the Children’s Kiva Montessori School, now housed in a warehouse in downtown Cortez, expressed interest in buying the building.

Kiva board president Nathaniel Seeley said the school is rapidly outgrowing its current location and could finance the purchase through a long-term mortgage.

“The Justice Building is a great opportunity [because] there’s not much else available that meets the standards for schools,” Seeley said, adding that having children romping in the park would be “a good thing – a compatible use.”

While recognizing the need for a shelter, Suckla said the question of its location adjacent to a park where families socialize and recreate must be broached, even if it is “very politically incorrect.”

“What’s said in private is, the location is bad,” Suckla said. “We need to be transparent about this problem.”

At the meeting, Sheriff Steve Nowlin expressed support for the shelter and said he is part of a group effort that includes Southwest Memorial Hospital and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe to establish a detox center as well, perhaps in the Justice Building, and this could offset some of the costs of maintaining the facility. The sheriff ’s department uses the basement for long-term storage of material evidence that can’t be destroyed, he explained, because it is related to murder and sexual assault cases.

“I don’t know what we’ll do if the Justice Building goes away,” he said.

Shelter board member Doug Greene pointed out that if the Bridge is closed, the burden on both law enforcement and the hospital would increase significantly.

“If there’s no shelter, the homeless become the community’s responsibility,” Greene said.

A possible alternative?

At the commission’s Oct. 21 meeting, Suckla proposed another alternative that would involve the Cortez School District Re-1 relocating its administrative offices to the Justice Building from the former Downey Grade School on North Elm, and the Kiva moving to Downey, with the shelter staying put.

He told the Free Press the idea wasn’t actually his, but something he’d overheard being discussed.

“I haven’t talked to Re-1,” Suckla said, but currently “you have administrators in a school, you have schoolchildren who are in a warehouse, and it doesn’t make sense.

“Why not put the children in a school building and put the people who work in offices in an office building? Everyone gets what they want and the Bridge gets to stay there.”

Suckla wasn’t sure just how the sale of the Justice Building would be handled and whether it would have to be put out to bid, saying he would have to consult the county attorney. He said the county is in the process of obtaining a grant to appraise it and determine whether asbestos is present.

But time is of the essence.

“After the new courthouse is built, the Justice Building will be a liability to the county and we need to do something with it,“ he said. “The sooner everyone knows what’s going on, the longer they have to make other arrangements, if need be.

“I don’t see the county kicking the Bridge out if we haven’t made arrangements to do something else with it.”

Ethical and pragmatic

Hale told the Free Press the city supports the concept of the Bridge and he is working to make it succeed.

He has spoken with Ken Charles of the state Department of Local Affairs and believes there may be an opportunity to obtain grants to build a new shelter. “I’m trying to turn up whatever stones I can.”

Hale said there are very pragmatic reasons to support the Bridge

“If the police department picks somebody up sleeping in the park, they can take them to the Bridge for about $20 a night, or to jail for $50 a night, or the hospital for hundreds a night.

“Or they can just stay in the park. We’re trying to promote this area. Do we want there to headlines like, ‘Somebody else froze to death in the park’?”

But beyond that, he said, there are moral and ethical reasons to keep the shelter.

“I believe we should judge any community based on how they treat their poorest, as well as their animals. You can be tough on poverty, but these are people without any voice. If you make the decision as a community to fund the Bridge, it’s not because you have to, it’s just because it’s who you are. All life has meaning, all live has value.

“There’s really no counter argument. No matter what your world view, you come to the conclusion the Bridge is necessary.”

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