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ACLU warns city, county against criminalizing homelessness

‘We are deeply discouraged that history appears to be repeating itself in Durango,’ letter says
A Durango City Council special meeting to discuss temporary placement of Purple Cliffs residents was called one day before La Plata County’s self-imposed deadline to close the homeless camp south of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The ACLU of Colorado and the National Homelessness Law Center sent a tersely worded letter this week to the city of Durango and La Plata County governments warning them not to criminalize homelessness.

The five-page letter sent Wednesday hints at legal consequences for ramping up anti-camping laws while displacing Purple Cliffs residents without giving them anywhere else to go. The letter is signed by Anna I. Kurtz, an attorney with the ACLU, and Lily Milwit, an attorney with the National Homelessness Law Center.

“We are deeply concerned by reports that the only plan local leadership has articulated for the aftermath of Purple Cliffs’ closure is the escalated criminalization of the very people your failure to act will have left without a safe and lawful place to live,” the letter reads. “We write to caution that this ‘strategy’ for addressing local houselessness is simply unacceptable as a matter of law, policy, and principle.”

The letter goes on to say it is not the first time the ACLU and National Homelessness Law Center have had to caution the city about criminalizing homelessness when no other housing alternatives exist.

La Plata County Commissioner Matt Salka said the county is reviewing the letter.

“We are on track to enforce the county’s no-camping ordinance on all county-owned land beginning tomorrow (Friday),” Salka said in an email sent Thursday to The Durango Herald.

Tom Sluis, spokesman for the city, said the city had not yet had time to formulate a response to the ACLU.

“This (letter) is nothing new,” he said. “This is something we’ve been dealing with the last few years. A letter from the ACLU is always something that the city takes seriously, but to what extent the city incorporates any concerns raised regarding policy decisions on homelessness would have to be something that councilors decide short of litigation.”

He noted that residents who attended a special meeting Thursday before the City Council had a negative reaction to meddling by the ACLU.

“They don’t want them (ACLU) involved with our city, that much was clear,” Sluis said.

In 2018, the ACLU expressed concerns when a Durango campsite was closed yet police enforced no-camping bans, according to the letter. The forced closure of a camping area in 2018 was premised on the notion that an alternative site would be made available, but the promise of a new site was “retracted along the way,” the letter says.

Then, as is now, residents were forced to leave their campsites under threat of criminal penalties for staying in place, the letter says.

Purple Cliffs was established as a temporary site in 2018, but it is set to close Friday with no new place identified for residents to go.

“We are deeply discouraged that history appears to be repeating itself in Durango, this time against the backdrop of a much-worsened affordable housing crisis, an unprecedented pandemic, and the quickly approaching onset of winter,” the ACLU letter reads.

The letter accuses the city of having an “underlying hope” to drive homeless residents from the city, but offers no citation for the origins of the accusation.

“That goal has sometimes been explicit, with city officials openly lamenting legal barriers to simply bussing (sic) people experiencing homelessness out of town,” the letter reads.

The letter ends by warning city and county officials that the ACLU and National Homelessness Law Center intend to protect the constitutional rights of homeless residents who are losing their homes at Purple Cliffs and possibly facing punishment for being homeless.

“We assure you we will remain vigilant and protective of these crucial civil liberties,” the letter reads.

molsen@durangoherald.com

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