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Despite orders from Sheriff, people still camping behind Tech Center

About 20 people living on hillside, says resident
Patricia Hollenbeck and Brian Whitten live on the eastern slope of Hogsback, behind the Durango Tech Center. Hollenbeck says there is nowhere else to go.

The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office has been clear: There’s no camping allowed behind the Tech Center. But weeks after law enforcement said individuals need to leave the area, people are still camping there. The reason? Those who were up there didn’t know where to go – and there wasn’t any recourse for not leaving.

Sheriff’s deputies have been patrolling the eastern slope of Hogsback multiple times a week since they asked campers there to vacate the premises, said Megan Graham, a spokeswoman for the county. Graham said patrolling officers tell people they’re not supposed to camp on the hillside and provide them with options as to where they can go.

But Patricia Hollenbeck, a self-proclaimed representative for the community living on the eastern slope of Hogsback, said the Sheriff’s Office hasn’t been up behind the Tech Center since they asked residents to leave weeks ago. And even when deputies were there, they didn’t provide options for where people could go, Hollenbeck said. When she asked law enforcement what she should do instead of camping behind the Tech Center, they responded with “I don’t know,” she said.

“They’re lying, they have not been up there,” Hollenbeck said. “I’ve been up there waiting for them to show up and they never show up.”

An estimated 40 people were camping on the hillside when the Sheriff’s Office issued its mandate. Now, there are about 20 people left, Hollenbeck said, many of whom are elderly or disabled and unable to move their gear to another site.

The Sheriff’s Office was clear when it began evicting people from the site: It wasn’t going to arrest anyone for being homeless. If someone committed a crime – such as littering or assault – he or she could get citations or arrested, but someone would not be cited or arrested for refusing to leave the area.

Law enforcement initiated this action after receiving complaints from residents about trash on the hillside, a popular mountain biking area. The reason Hollenbeck wants deputies up there is she wants to make a deal with them: We’ll clean up the mess if you guys help us out, she said.

But camping above the Tech Center has been and remains to be illegal, Graham said, and kicking people off the hillside is an enforcement of that policy.

“At this point, the Sheriff’s Office has not been issuing citations; they’re taking a ‘you need to move along and here are your options’ (approach),” Graham said.

While this approach may have worked in part – about half of the people staying there have left – there are still hold outs on the hillside. But it’s not that the Sheriff’s Office didn’t get anything done on the hillside, Hollenbeck said. Deputies’ presence behind the Tech Center sort of opened the eyes of some of the cleaner residents up there to the trash others left behind, she said.

“We’re trying to keep our community clean,” Hollenbeck said. “We got all the bad people out of there.”

And they’re not there because that’s where they want to stay, Hollenbeck said, it’s because they have no where else to go. The solution to this problem is not just telling people they need to get off the mountain side, but working collaboratively to find permanent housing for people who don’t have it but want it, both Hollenbeck and Graham said.

“What we’re doing right now, I don’t think could be described as a solution,” Graham said. “It’s managing a situation as best we can while we try to find something that is more appropriate and safer for everybody.”

bhauff@durangoherald.com

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