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County may shut down Purple Cliffs camp for homeless residents

Commissioners: Site presents too many challenges to be long-term solution
La Plata County commissioners may move to shut down the camp for homeless residents at Purple Cliffs by the end of the year.

La Plata County commissioners expressed support Wednesday for shutting down the temporary camp for homeless residents at Purple Cliffs in an attempt to force the city of Durango to make good on a promise to establish a permanent camp.

La Plata County in 2019 set up the camp at Purple Cliffs, just south of Durango on La Posta Road (County Road 213), on the premise the city of Durango would work toward creating a permanent location for homeless residents to camp.

But in the months since, and as winter quickly approaches, Durango city councilors have wavered on where the site would be located, even hinting that the site at Purple Cliffs could become the permanent spot.

At a work session Wednesday, county commissioners expressed frustration that city councilors have not made progress on a permanent camp, saying this is not the first time the city has pushed the responsibly back on the county.

“I feel like once again, the city is putting … the lion’s share of the responsibly on the county for maintaining a camp when that was never the intent of the Purple Cliffs location,” Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said.

Commissioner Julie Westendorff added, “I don’t think there are words from the City Council I’d believe that they will accomplish a site.”

County commissioners say the site at Purple Cliffs is inadequate as a long-term camp – it’s far from services like Manna soup kitchen, it presents safety hazards along the county road and its terrain is steep and dangerous, especially in winter.

Annoyed by city councilors kicking the can down the road, Westendorff proposed shutting down the Purple Cliffs camp by the end of the year, hoping it would send a message to city officials to get a permanent site done.

“I know that’s a strong comment to make, and I know that is not a comment I wish I were making,” she said. “... but I feel like we’re in a corner and we don’t have a choice.”

Part of the problem, county officials say, was a break down in communication between Neighbors in Need Alliance, the volunteer group that was looking at options for camps for homeless residents, and the county.

Over the summer, NINA determined a site within city limits near Greenmount Cemetery – long considered as a possible location for homeless residents – would be suitable for a highly managed camp with about 25 campsites. The site, called Elkview, could shelter 35 to 40 people, NINA said.

NINA also determined it would be necessary to keep Purple Cliffs open in case the site near Greenmount Cemetery is full and for people within the homeless community who don’t want to live at a highly managed site.

But NINA failed to let the county know about the updated plan that called for Purple Cliffs to remain open, said Caroline Kinser, an organizer with the group.

“We neglected that, and I’m sorry,” Kinser said.

A study by NINA estimated it would cost about $30,000 a year to keep Purple Cliffs open, for mostly trash service and portable toilets. With about 50 people living there, it would cost about $1.64 a day per camper.

Donna Rheault, also with NINA, said the homeless population will likely exceed capacity at Elkview, and it would be better for people to have a place to go, like at Purple Cliffs, rather than be dispersed around the county.

“If Purple Cliffs closes ... that’s when we really think we’ll see all the problems,” she said. “They’ll be everywhere and much more difficult to manage.”

Lachelt said it was unfortunate the county was being informed of the need to keep Purple Cliffs open for the long term on such short notice, especially as winter nears.

“I find it really unfortunate we’re learning all of this on Sept. 9, 2020,” Lachelt said. “We’re now talking about at least two camps instead of one, so we’re all trying to come up to speed and be where you are.”

Commissioners maintained the county-owned property at Purple Cliffs is not suitable for a long-term homeless camp. They floated the idea, instead, of city owned property at Purple Cliffs that’s adjacent to the county’s.

Westendorff proposed a public county meeting about closing down Purple Cliffs for Sept. 22. If commissioners ultimately decide to shut down the camp, it would likely take place in late November or early December.

“I do not support that location as a long-term camp,” Westendorff said. “If there’s going to be a camp, it has to be at a better place, and that isn’t it.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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