Durango code enforcement officers Steve Barkley and Vicki Kling stepped over cactuses and hung onto oak brush for support as they scaled a steep mountainside near the northern city limits.
They were looking for footprints and listening for a dog’s bark on Aug. 23, as they closed in on an illegal campsite near the base of Animas City Mountain just south of X-rock behind a Colorado Department of Transportation building.
“A large majority of them (unhoused people), unfortunately, do not have very good housekeeping skills, whatsoever,” Barkley said. “And that just causes a health issue and attraction to wildlife issue.”
The hillside in north Durango has become one of several gathering spots for campers since the closing of Purple Cliffs in late September 2022. Others include the areas around Ewing Mesa, the High Bridge and the natural lands around Manna soup kitchen.
Purple Cliffs functioned as an unofficial camp spot for three years. At its peak, about 180 people lived there.
Since its closure, campers have dispersed and regathered in pockets throughout the city and just outside city limits, including under bridges and on natural lands bordering city limits, Barkley said.
He said it is difficult to know how many people may be camping this summer around Durango. He estimated he deals with about 40 “core” campers who bounce around the city’s parks, trails and open spaces.
“I hate to say it, it’s Whac-A-Mole,” said Barkley, who has been clearing encampments in Durango for more than 20 years. “We’ll chase them around and try to figure out solutions for them.”
A trash crew hired by La Plata County government removed huge piles of debris that had accumulated during the past year near northern city limits.
Barkley and Kling stood above one of those heaps that included propane tanks, empty crates, area rugs, about a dozen stuffed-full garbage bags and, ironically, a sign that read: “No dumping allowed.”
Despite all the trash, Barkley and Kling were awestruck at how good the camp looked compared with a month ago.
“This was the worst out of all the camps up here,” Barkley said. “It became a dump.”
Barkley and Kling have been making monthly visits to this hillside since May. After a brief stop at the remediated campsite, they continued their trek up the mountain in search of a man and his dog who had been camped out for several weeks. The goal was to get the man to move so the trash crew could safely clean his site.
Along the way, Kling removed cactuses from her pants. And Barkley had to make a phone call to be guided to the campsite by someone at the base of the mountain.
Pretty soon, they caught sight of the camp and moved in.
“I think we know this guy,” Kling said. “... Yep, he hasn’t moved since the last time.”
Steve Kerby sat in his tent, a pile of trash jettisoned about 15 feet from his doorstep down the hillside.
“I’ve dealt with Steve (Barkley) for eight years now,” Kerby told The Durango Herald. “He’s a good man. I like Steve.”
He said a visit from code enforcement usually means he’s going to have to move.
“He comes here to make sure everything’s all good. Checks up, makes sure trash isn’t all over the place. And if you’ve got to move, he tells you you’ve got to move,” Kerby said. “That’s his job. … It’s just playing games with him. That’s all it comes down to, isn’t it, Steve?”
Barkley asks if Kerby is he’s doing OK, if he needs any medical assistance. He makes sure Kerby knows about the services at Manna soup kitchen and other community resources that can help people in need.
Barkley lets Kerby know the property owner wants to clean up the trash, so he needs to break down camp and move within 48 hours.
Barkley asks if there’s any reason Kerby can’t go to a shelter, and Kerby says it is because of a domestic violence conviction, which makes him ineligible for the shelter.
Kerby announces he has a constitutional right to have a place to sleep, and Barkley agrees, saying he can camp on public lands. But he must break down camp during the day – from sunrise to sunset. Or he can set up for 14 days at a time on U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management lands.
Kerby said the heap of trash at his doorstep was there before he arrived. He said he has “bears, cats, squirrels – everything” come through his camp. He said he moved to Durango eight years ago to live the “American dream.” But the shelter wouldn’t take him in, so he and his dog, Athena, ended up living in a tent.
“It’s been that way ever since,” he said.
The Durango community is good to him, Kerby said.
“Durango has been very excellent to me; this is paradise,” he said. “The people here are so friendly, so nice. Even the ones that are (expletive) are still nice. … If it weren’t for people in Durango, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Kerby had moved on from his north Durango campsite this past Monday.
“No idea where he's gone,” Barkley said.
La Plata County contracted with ClearView Cleanup, LLC, to remove trash from the hillside in north Durango. It is the same company that was hired to clean up Purple Cliffs after it was disbanded last year.
Owner Wayne Jasmer said the company removed about 1,300 cubic yards of trash from Purple Cliffs, or about 140 city-sized dump truck loads.
“It really kind of seemed like a Third World country,” Jasmer said of Purple Cliffs. “… It really kind of looked like somebody just exploded a bunch of trash on the hillside.”
The north Durango site had far less trash – about 15 dump truck loads last year and four dump truck loads. But that is just one of several campsites that have sprung up since the closing of Purple Cliffs, he said.
The campsites are littered with clothing, batteries, pallets, bike parts, tent poles, sleeping bags, household trash and drug paraphernalia, Jasmer said.
“Every one of these camps have huge amounts of food that have gone bad,” Barkley said. “And of course, once it starts rotting, it drags in the bears, the skunks, the raccoons.”
Jasmer said it is obvious some campers grab trash bags full of garbage from residents’ bins and haul them to their campsites to go through them. He has seen tents that aren’t erected but are hanging in the trees to provide shade. Some camps have tile floors. Drug paraphernalia is common.
“We try to get it back to as natural as possible, but it’s only natural until somebody moves back into the camp,” he said.
Wildlife is drawn to the trash piles, especially rats, he said.
“It probably would make your skin crawl how many rats that we run into, but they live there because of the trash,” Jasmer said.
Going through the piles of trash and bagging it for disposal sheds some insights on the campers, he said. He has also met his share of regular campers.
“I would say that the majority of people that are up there are addicted to something or have fallen really hard on their luck and haven’t been able to find a way to get back,” Jasmer said. “I don’t see that it’s going to change in the near future.”
Many of those living at campsites don’t want help, don’t want to be told what to do and don’t want to be told where to go, he said.
“They just want to do their own thing, and it doesn’t matter how many programs somebody comes up with or how many government-run or state-run options are out there; if they don’t want help, they're not going to go get help,” Jasmer said.
Durango has a lot of wealthy and caring people, he said, which isn’t the case in some other cities.
“I guess that’s something to be said for the city of Durango is that we do care to a certain extent, we probably hand out a little bit more than we should, but that’s part of the reason why they’re here,” he said.
La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said the city and the county for years have been “chasing the problem around rather than pursuing a comprehensive solution as a community.”
The city and the county worked for many years to establish a managed encampment and find other solutions, but those efforts went in different directions and nothing ever came of them, he said.
He sounded a bit dejected, saying knowledgeable people and dedicated volunteers worked tirelessly toward a solution, “and somehow we couldn’t get across the finish line.”
Identifying that solution and moving forward on a plan would result in fewer impacts to downtown Durango and surrounding neighborhoods, Smith said.
“What we’re currently doing is kind of what we did for many, many years,” he said, “and that’s just chasing the problem around and solving nothing.”