When it comes to public discourse surrounding Durango’s housing crisis, inquiry regarding homeless and at-risk youth tends to be pervasive.
“There are way too many homeless teenagers in this town,” Chris, a homeless 19-year-old, said. “Like I could go down to the recreational center whenever, and I can pick out like 10.”
Chris has struggled with housing since his childhood, especially after turning 18, without a parent and stable housing situation, he said.
For the time being, while saving to get into an apartment, he is situated at a motel and works as a gas station attendant, he said.
“The cost of living in Durango is nowhere near reasonable,” he said.
Making Rent in Durango
As of January 1, the Colorado state minimum wage rate is $12.56, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
As of November 3, Colorado’s average wage rate for gas station attendants is $14.44, according to Indeed, an employment platform that tracks the job market.
“I think that, without living in a roommate situation, it can be very challenging to try and live alone while working at a minimum wage job in Durango’s economy,” Tessa Carhart, a property manager for Triple H Leasing, said.
Rent prices are continually rising because there is a lot less supply than there is demand within Durango’s housing market, she said.
That is why, when vacant rental units are available, property managers must fulfill their duties by raising rent prices to follow market trends, she said.
As of October 29, the average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in Durango is $1,784, which is a 31% increase compared to last year, according to Zumper, a real-estate platform that tracks the housing market.
Due to the housing industry’s current state, people commonly perceive landlords as greedy, Carhart said.
Therefore, when it comes to having these conversations in regards to the economy, housing, landlords and disparities, people get worked up, she said
The Housing Impact on Local Youth
For a moment in time, Chris stayed at the Spanish Trails motel, which offers rooms as apartments, he said.
“I got kicked out of my own place during COVID,” he said. “After I was no longer in my own room, I started staying with a friend that also lived there.”
Eventually, Chris’ friend could not continue to pay rent, and he could not afford it as well, so the landlords kicked them out, he said.
As the season change, and the weather gets colder, securing shelter becomes much more urgent because there is hardly any hiding from the cold without shelter, he said.
While facing homelessness, it has been difficult to gather resources to meet basic needs, he said.
Across La Plata County, at-risk youth often struggle with domestic violence, mental illness, chronic illness/disability, PTSD and substance abuse, according to a homeless point-in-time study conducted by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Factors that often contribute to youth homelessness include experiences with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, family conflict, poverty, housing insecurity, racial disparities, mental health and substance use disorders, according to data collected by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Within Durango, the commonality between at-risk and homeless youth into adulthood, however, is coming from homes of intergenerational trauma, Cailea Eisenberg, an on-site therapist for The Hive Collective, said.
There are many levels to trauma, but two primary elements directly impact each other – the nurturer, which is the environment that we are born into, and epigenetic, which is actual DNA in our bodies, she said.
“Parents are perpetuating that trauma upon their children from birth,” she said. “And the children are born into this world smacked and inundated with all of their parent’s previous addictions, and struggles and mental health issues, once again, all based on the conditioning and programming of this, you know, sick western culture.”
Altogether, now, at-risk and homeless youth may know the various elements playing into their lives, but they often feel helpless in the inaction of not knowing how to empower themselves, she said.
“My agenda is just to be here, be present for anybody and anyone that is ready to open up or that needs to release something,” she said. “And that is what we need more of, right, more of that space for youth to just speak their truth, and it’s happening slowly but surely,”
Oak Tree Youth Resources
When raising her children in Durango, they often brought their friends around the house, Carie Harrison, the founder of Oak Tree Youth Resources, said.
While meeting her children’s friends, her awareness grew surrounding housing struggles local youth faced, she said.
“I just started realizing, with all our kids' experiences, how many young people could not live at home,” she said. “Communities need young people. I think people really need to understand that communities can really suffer by not providing for young people, and I think it gets really easy to lose that as the community’s just taking care of property, business and housing.”
Beginning in February 2020, in an effort to help at-risk and homeless youth, Harrison founded Oak Tree Youth Resources, partnered with the Colorado Rural Collaborative on Runaway & Homeless Youth and joined The Hive Collective, she said.
Now, Oak Tree is the only nonprofit organization in all of southwest Colorado centered on providing aid and relief for at-risk and homeless youth, she said.
Within the first 6 months of founding Oak Tree, the amount of youth that turned to her was completely overwhelming, she said.
Since July 2022, Carmen Ilisoi, an AmeriCorps VISTA, joined Oak Tree to collect data regarding at-risk youth and ensure that local school districts adhere to the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, which ensures the enrollment and education of homeless students, Harrison said.
Altogether, Oak Tree has housed 52 youth from 1 night up to 18 months through their various programs, she said.
Oak Tree’s Basic Center Program, for example, offers fixed services and support for youth aged 12-18, she said.
Oak Tree also works with and often prioritizes pregnant and parenting youth in need of housing, she said.
Additionally, Oak Tree’s Transitional Living Program offers housing and financial support (up to $300 per month for rentals) for youth aged 18-24, as they save and work towards qualifying for their own housing, she said.
Oak Tree has not had its own housing properties since July, as 2 of the 3 properties they rented were sold, and a youth they served took over and still occupies their third property’s payments, she said.
“Sometimes, youth just need some help getting started and we can offer many supportive services,” she said. “These needs are determined as we meet with young people and go through a brief intake.”
Through Case Management, for instance, Oak Tree offers resume building, job seeking, educational reentry/completion, support to locate and attend mental health appointments and more to help youth move towards independence, she said.
For at-risk youth in general, Harrison has been truly great and the main person to show up out of nowhere to help, Chris said
“Months ago, my friend mentioned that, ‘there’s this lady that doesn’t work with Child Protective Services, but it seems like she works with Child Protective Services’,” Chris said. “It was kind of a funny story because I was like, ‘okay?’ But I met her, and she actually like took us out to get food - it was awesome. Since then, she’s helped me literally not freeze to death a couple of times.”