Sale of Montezuma courthouse leaves Bridge shelter in limbo

Friday, Feb. 17, 2017 7:53 PM
The Bridge Emergency Shelter’s executive director, Laurie Knutson, sits on a bed in a room with a leaking roof.
The entrance to The Bridge Emergency Shelter in the current Montezuma County justice building, at 601 N. Mildred Road.

The Bridge Emergency Shelter in Cortez could face its own emergency this year, as Montezuma County commissioners recently put its location up for sale.

The decision to sell the Montezuma County justice building and withhold county support for the shelter comes as the Bridge reports an increasing homeless population. Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin and Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane said they need a place to house the noncriminal homeless population, and that crime will increase if the shelter is closed.

Montezuma County commissioners said they need to cut the budget.

“The plans for the Bridge are up to the Bridge,” said commissioner Keenan Ertel. “It’s not my decision.”

A cloudy futureFor the past 11 years, the Bridge has occupied part of the justice building on 601 N. Mildred Road, along with the county court and probation offices. On Jan. 30, county commissioners voted to list the building for about $1.3 million, in preparation for the move to a new combined courthouse, which is under construction. If its current location sells, the Bridge might have to find a new home, but its board members are unsure whether they’ll be able to pay for one.

The county commission has considered selling the justice building ever since their decision to build a combined courthouse, but the Bridge’s directors said commissioners didn’t communicate the plans clearly to them until after the vote on Jan. 30.

“There’s actually been attempts over the last couple of years to get some clarity about what was going to happen with this building,” said the Bridge’s executive director, Laurie Knutson. “At times, it’s been frustrating to us, how long it has taken to get answers. So that news was not great news, but it clarified some things.”

She said the Bridge has two choices: rent an existing building or build one. Both choices would require additional funding, although Knutson said it’s impossible to know how much either would cost. The Bridge has applied for grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, but it’s too early to tell if it would receive them. But if the money came through, a new building could be a much-needed upgrade for the shelter.

“This building is horrible,” board member Doug Greene said. “Anytime something broke in the county, it was tossed in the basement here. It has environmental issues. It has roofing issues.”

A changing countyThe Bridge was founded in 2006 in response to the hypothermia-related deaths of several homeless people in Montezuma County. During the winter, it offers food and overnight shelter to about 40 people per night, according to Greene. It also includes a year-round day labor center, which connects unemployed people with temporary jobs in the community.

The shelter’s budget, which is just over $220,000, is funded by grants, donations and support from the city of Cortez and the county. The county also provides its rent and utilities, which are not included in the budget.

Knutson said the needs of the county’s homeless have changed in the 11 years since the Bridge was founded. While the majority of the shelter’s guests during its first few years were alcoholics or had other substance abuse problems, she said that’s no longer the case. Now she sees more need for a shelter that can accommodate families, unaccompanied minors and seniors. The homeless population has grown in the past few years, Knutson said. Last year, the Bridge served about 325 people, and this year, it has served 248 since it opened in October. About a quarter of those people were over age 55.

Although the justice building no longer meets all the Bridge’s needs, Knutson said, it is conveniently close to Southwest Memorial Hospital, Hope’s Kitchen at First United Methodist Church and the Cortez Police Department. The shelter’s directors hope to stay in the heart of Cortez, where most of the county’s homeless population can find them.

Ertel said the shelter is welcome to continue using the justice building for as long as the county owns it, but the commissioners don’t plan to support it after the building sells.

The county budgeted $34,650 for justice building utilities in 2017, which includes the Bridge’s expenses. That’s almost 14 percent less than the 2016 utilities budget, which was $40,130, but Montezuma County Administrator Melissa Brunner said about a third of the utilities budget will still go toward the shelter’s rent and utilities until the building sells. In the past, the county has also donated about $20,000 to the Bridge annually through its social services department, but Social Services Director Josiah Forkner said that won’t happen this year because of the county’s 10 percent budget cuts. The cuts also removed funding for the county’s annual donations to local food banks and Axis Health System’s detox center in Durango.

A concerned police forceA lack of county support could spell trouble, not only for the shelter, but also for law enforcement and the community, Bridge directors said. The Cortez Police Department and Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office often drop off homeless and intoxicated people at the shelter rather than take them to jail. Lane, one of the Bridge’s founders who still serves on its board of directors, said the shelter has been an valuable resource for dealing with the noncriminal homeless population, and one is needed.

“There is no (other) option,” he said. “There’s no place to put them. You can’t put them in jail if they haven’t committed a crime.”

Nowlin prefers that the county use the current building as a shelter and possibly a detox center, which he has argued is one of the community’s biggest needs. Without a homeless shelter, the area’s crime rates will increase, he said.

“You’re going to see (people) break into cars, break into homes, break into motels,” he said. “We’ve got to have shelter, we have to have food, we have to have water to survive. So where does that come from?”

The justice building also houses the sheriff’s long-term evidence storage facility and vehicle impound lot. Nowlin said he doesn’t know where they will go after the sale, either. Like Bridge directors, he didn’t learn about the commissioners’ decision to sell the building until after their vote.

The Bridge’s long-term plans, as well as the county’s, are still in their earliest stages, but for now, Knutson and Greene hope to raise support for the shelter in the community and county government. They have asked county residents to contact the commissioners and tell them about the shelter’s importance.

“We can’t solve any of the homeless problems without county and city support, period,” Greene said. “It has to be a joint effort.”

Evidence locker needs relocation

If the Montezuma County justice building sells, Sheriff Steve Nowlin will need to find a new location for the office’s evidence locker.
The department’s evidence room contains thousands of items, he said Friday.
Montezuma County Commissioners voted Jan. 30 to put up for sale the building, which also houses county courtrooms, the probation department and The Bridge Emergency Shelter.
Nowlin said he’s shopping around for a new evidence storage location.
“I have to have it,” he said. “I have no room anywhere else, period.”
Nowlin discussed the issue with the commissioners at their Feb. 13 meeting, but they did not make a decision about relocating the storage area or assisting the sheriff with the process.
Evidence in the locker dates back decades, and the department is required to keep it, Nowlin said.
The current evidence storage area is about 1,500 square feet and is climate-controlled with water and electricity, Nowlin said. He’s looking for a slightly larger new facility, between 1,800 and 2,000 square feet, he said.
“We have to plan for the future,” he said.
Moving the items would be costly and time-consuming, Nowlin said. He would prefer to have the evidence custodian alone deal with the items so the evidence is kept secure and the chain of custody is intact, he said. However, that would be a large amount of work for one person, he added.
“We’re trying to move forward, and we’ll get things done,” Nowlin said. “It’s inevitable that things change, but we’ll do the best we can.”


The Bridge Emergency Shelter
601 N. Mildred Road
Cortez, CO 81321