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Where will homeless campers go once Purple Cliffs closes?

City of Durango and La Plata County look for options less than two weeks ahead of self-imposed closing
According to a homeless count conducted by La Plata County, only 50 residents were living at Purple Cliffs as of Friday. Officials said there were around 160 living there this summer. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The city of Durango and La Plata County commissioners met Monday to discuss the closure of Purple Cliffs homeless camp, which is scheduled for Sept. 30.

Purple Cliffs opened in 2018 south of Durango after the 416 Fire broke out, but county officials have always said the camp is a temporary fix. But with fewer than two weeks until the self-imposed closure date, the city and the county are still looking for land that can be used for a managed homeless camp.

The more pressing question now has shifted to what will happen to Purple Cliffs residents once the camp closes Sept. 30.

La Plata County Manager Chuck Stevens said the county has prioritized finding temporary housing for families with children, pregnant individuals and youths. For those with families, the county has been able to arrange motel rooms for some of them until they can find a better housing situation.

“So as of Friday, our most recent count, we had 50 people (at Purple Cliffs),” Stevens said. “We had zero families and zero pregnant individuals.”

He said those who have been prioritized are receiving access to federal and state resources, including transitional housing.

“That’s a good news story, but it’s not a success story,” Stevens said.

On Sept. 30, the county will tag remaining infrastructure and tents to let Purple Cliffs residents know they have 72 hours to vacate. On Oct. 3 and Oct. 4, the county will close La Posta Road (County Road 213) and offer assistance to the those still living in the camp.

Stevens said there are multiple locations where Purple Cliffs residents can find temporary living.

“There’s the VOA (Volunteers of America) shelter, there’s Espero when vacancies exist. There’s the Southwest Safe House for those that qualify for that,” Stevens said. “And then if there are people who just want to camp and be outdoors, there’s public lands where you can camp in accordance with the camping regulations.”

Finding a more permanent solution has been a struggle for the city and the county.

On April 12, La Plata County commissioners approved a contract to purchase property along U.S. Highway 160 near the Durango Dog Park for a managed camp. But commissioners voted to terminate the contract after a due diligence period that identified limitations imposed by the flood plain on the site.

“Flood way concerns were the first thing that popped up. We thought that we could potentially engineer a solution for those, but that was going to raise the price tag,” Stevens said.

State restrictions also would have affected the amount of work that could be done on the site, he said. The county has been working with the Durango Area Association of Realtors to find properties for the homeless. Stevens said the county looked into county land around the Durango Tech Center and Four Winds motel, but the property was too expensive.

Stevens said the county has faced other obstacles, the biggest being opposition to a managed camp by those who would live in the vicinity of such a site.

“The single biggest challenge for anything like this is overcoming the potential negative impacts and making sure that you’ve got those mitigated and given assurances to the neighbors, whoever those neighbors are, because they deserve that,” Stevens said.

The city has also been looking at property options but has not disclosed a specific location.

City Manager José Madrigal said the city has a real estate agent looking at properties for a managed camp and will hear more about those potential properties later this week.

City Councilor Kim Baxter asked about the potential for an emergency ordinance allowing for city-owned land to be used, forgoing the five month county land-use process.

Stevens said the county does not have the authority to call an emergency ordinance.

Baxter said if the city did call an emergency ordinance for land use, it would have to be within city limits and not in the county.

City councilors will decide Tuesday night whether they want to discuss an emergency ordinance.

Purple Cliffs residents say the county and the city have not shared information about where they can go after the closure, and some are frustrated.

“It’s heartbreaking to see elected officials of an American city that I fought for not care about its people,” said Purple Cliffs resident Antonio Espinoza.

If homeless residents are removed from Purple Cliffs, they are more likely to disperse throughout the city, he said. He said residents have made upgrades to Purple Cliffs, including installing an automatic pumping shower, and he doesn’t want to leave those amenities behind.

“There has been more effort put into this place in four months than in the last four years, and the county just is turning a blind eye to it,” Espinoza said.

tbrown@durangoherald.com

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