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Durango takes aim at homeless camps on banks of Animas River

City and police look at cracking down with tougher municipal citations
An illegal campsite is set up below Roosa Avenue on Tuesday before the latest sweep by the Durango Police Department. City and the police officials are investigating ways to get a better handle on camping along the river. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Airrick Hix awoke Thursday morning and stood looking across the Animas River from the Roosa Avenue campsite where he and other houseless people have set up camp after being flushed from several previous places.

Police confiscated Hix’s tent, sleeping bag and supplies while he was away from the camp on Wednesday. He isn’t angry about it. And he said he didn’t know he could stop by the police department to recoup his belongings.

The Roosa Avenue campsite has become the latest flashpoint for Durango Police Department and Durango City Council after local housed residents “expressed concern regarding unpermitted camping in that area and the associated problems of trash and human waste,” according to a news release on the city’s website.

City councilors met Tuesday to discuss possible changes in municipal court that might add teeth to citations issued by police for illegal camping.

Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer and City Clerk Faye Harmer delivered a presentation pointing out that 62% of all Durango police cases are filed in municipal court and that 80% of all cases result in dismissal, deferred sentencing or both.

“To deter repeat offenders, police and city staff are recommending council investigate making changes including revising warrant language and issuing warrants after first failure to appear with a monetary bond,” according to the city’s news release.

What all the verbiage washes out to mean is that if someone is issued a citation for illegal camping and they fail to appear in court, a warrant for their arrest would be issued and they would go to jail, where they would stay for a day or two waiting to appear before the municipal judge.

But to back up for a second. It is illegal to camp along the banks of the river in town. So for now the police, accompanied by a homeless outreach team, have been warning campers to leave or risk citation and confiscation of any unattended possessions. But before that, police and the outreach team have been offering to house the campers in the Volunteers of America Shelter, which the police contact before each shift to confirm availability, Brammer said.

Nine unoccupied tents and the possessions inside were removed by police from the Roosa campsite Wednesday morning. As were 10 yards of trash and a lot of “feces” both human and dog, some in buckets found inside a structure and the rest on open ground, police said. In addition, police report that the code enforcement officer has been removing three pickup loads of trash a week and that three-quarters of that trash is wasted food.

The Durango Police Department confiscated unattended tents and gear this week at the homeless camp along the banks of the Animas River below Roosa Avenue. They also removed human and dog excrement. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The feces and the trash are not only a visual blight but also a public health issue, officials say. And warming temperatures combined with expected rains raise concerns about rising river levels, which could not only endanger people in the camp, it would also exacerbate health concerns by washing all the camp-created excrement and trash into the river.

Police planned to do another cleanup Thursday, which will include removing all non-tent structures, said Deputy Police Chief Brice Current.

“The river’s going to be coming up and we are not going to wait and go down there to clean up those structures in the water while letting all that feces and everything else go down the river,” Current said Thursday. “If people are in those structures we’ll offer them a tent, and there’s also availability at the VOA shelter right now – for females, males and veterans today. So we will be offering them that option as well.”

“We are never going to be good enough in society’s eyes, but homelessness is not bad, it’s just how we are viewed,” said camper Michelle Taylor. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Hix said he and his fellow holdout campers, who were moved out of Purple Cliffs and then Hogsback, do not want to stay in a shelter.

“I guess the shelter is a nice place to stay, it’s just not our style,” the 34-year-old said. “We just want a nice open spot but they keep coming to Roosa. And we just want to stay together and be left alone, really.”

Hix moved to Durango from Nevada to attend Fort Lewis College, where he said he received a degree in engineering. He had a house, a girlfriend and a job. He said he’s not sure why he’s been homeless the past two years.

“I never thought I would be,” he said. “I just lost my drive and normal day-to-day life seemed unfulfilling. It just seemed so phony. Even though I had money I was always looking for something else. I wanted more even though I had more than I needed. And now I have nothing and I don’t need anything. The lust for more got me until it took me down. And now I guess I’m still looking for the next path – the next thing to do.”

Hix said homeless people like him try to congregate together because it makes them stronger when it comes to building a camp and cooking and watching out for each other. He also feels foggy and slow when he’s alone while feeling faster-thinking and smarter when he’s with others.

“Everything works better when we’re together – when we are all on the same page, that is,” he said.

Efforts are underway by police and city officials to revamp the municipal court so that citations issued by police have backing to enforce laws prohibiting camping within city limits. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Camper Michelle Taylor, who was born and raised in Durango and said she isn’t going anywhere, believes concerns about rising river levels are “just another ploy, another excuse” to be rid of the homeless.

“We wouldn’t be here if they would have kept their promise of having a place for us after they closed Purple Cliffs, and in winter, what was the meaning of that?” she asked. “They had no care about us freezing to death but now they’re worried about us drowning? C’mon.”

She said she’s tired of always having to find a new place and having police throw their things away.

“I jumped in the river this winter because I was so distraught,” Taylor said. “I didn’t want to kill myself, I just wanted to be heard. But is it a cry for help if nobody is listening?”

Meanwhile, Brammer said “huge” progress was made during the Tuesday meeting as far as addressing the municipal court processes.

The challenges with the court is that it has four functions with four autonomous parts, he said. Two of them report to the city manager, and that is the police department and the clerk’s office that processes all the paperwork that goes through the docket and the case filings and such. And then there’s the city prosecutor who works for the city attorney who works for City Council. And then you have the municipal court judge who is appointed by City Council.

“And what we are trying to do is figure out how we can all work together to address the specific needs of the community while still upholding our charter and ordinances,” Brammer said.

So how does issuing citations with fines to homeless people, who have no money or jobs, or arresting them and putting them in jail for not showing up to court, do anything to help the homeless? And how does it solve the homeless conundrum? And then of course there is the cost to taxpayers and the additional crunch on jail capacity.

Deputy Chief Current said it is a complex problem and if people want a simple answer with human beings, to forget it, because there are no simple answers. Both he and Brammer make clear that the objective is certainly not to lock people up for being homeless. The objective is to do what is best for public safety and health and to give legitimacy to police enforcement.

But for those who refuse to live by the laws, and especially for those who are spiraling down because of addiction, sometimes facing the music is the best option to get onto the road to recovery, Current said.

It’s not cheap, getting people before a judge and then connecting them with mental health help, he said. But jail does offer mental health help through Axis and it gives people time to get away from their addictions.

“And while three days of hots and a cot is a vacation, by five days you want to be back in your own bed,” Current said. “And imagine, if you have an addiction, you’re gonna be like, ‘This sucks. I need to change my life.’ And I’ve seen it over and over and over where people, after serving time, actually changed their life.

“But what we really need is treatment,” he said. “So if we had that jail and treatment and mandated, court-mandated treatment in another facility,” which Current said looks to be coming down the proverbial pike at Mercy Hospital, “then lasting positive change can happen.”


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