ISAIAH BRANCH-BOYLE/Durango Herald
Local law-enforcement personnel are sweeping public lands along the city outskirts this week, armed with eviction notices for campsites occupied by homeless or transient people.
The notices have a clear message: leave. But officers are finding most campers have already left.
Sgt. Dave Peterson said sweep teams are focusing their energy on popular camping areas such as Horse Gulch, Overend Mountain Park and along the Animas River behind Walmart.
The teams include city police, school resource officers, and code-enforcement officers, as well as Parks and Recreation Department employees.
Durango’s trespassing ordinance declares it illegal to “knowingly lodge in or camp upon” any public road, park, building or place. This includes all trail and wilderness areas within city limits.
If officers encounter an active but empty campsite, they post a sign giving occupants 48 hours to clean and vacate the area.
If the occupant is present during the sweep, he or she can be cited for trespassing on city property, but more often is given a warning.
“They can be issued a summons to go to municipal court, with potential for receiving a fine or jail time, but that is relatively rare. Most of the folks move along (without legal action),” said Steve Barkley, a code-compliance officer with the city.
Peterson said, “(The occupants) are told to pack up, clean up and move on.”
The sweeps have been a regular occurrence since 2000, said Police Chief Jim Spratlen. He said the city felt compelled to address sanitation, fire hazard and public-safety concerns associated with unauthorized long-term camping.
“We have hikers who use these trails. We want them to feel safe. Plus, the campsite conditions are generally pretty filthy, since there are no toilet or washing facilities,” Peterson said.
In the past, sweep teams have typically found about 15 active and 25 to 30 abandoned campsites.
But this year the camps have been unusually quiet; most all inhabitants have already left. Peterson attributes the lack of action to efforts by Parks and Recreation workers, who spent several weeks collecting trash and informing occupants of the impending police sweeps.
“(Parks and Rec) had a head start on us,” he said, “They’ve already collected five trucks of garbage behind Walmart and two from Horse Gulch.”
Police Officer Peter Malberg, while searching the woods above Manna Soup Kitchen on Tuesday, said, “We were really able to hit the ground running.”
Each abandoned site is tagged with GPS coordinates so city workers can later clear any trash left behind.
Spratlen said the city’s strategy has changed over the last decade. Under the original plan, officers would do a major sweep once a year. But recently, city employees have been responding promptly to reports and complaints of unauthorized camping as they come in.
“This week we’re putting more effort toward ... the areas further (away from town). But it’s an ongoing project,” he said.
Representatives from the Durango Community Shelter declined to comment about whether they see an influx of people seeking lodging after the sweeps.
The sweeps come at a time when homeless policy is making news across Colorado.
Denver police began enforcing a citywide camping ban Monday, and Gov. John Hickenlooper recently launched Pathways Home Colorado, a state program aiming to “end all forms of homelessness by 2020.”
In July, local housing groups will participate in another initiative out of the governor’s office called Colorado Counts. Using surveys and interviews with people “living on the edge,” Colorado Counts will produce a Vulnerability Index to gauge the scope of homelessness in five Southwest counties, said Jennifer Lopez, executive director for the Regional Housing Alliance of La Plata County.
In the meantime, the intermittent sweeps will carry on.