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Durango’s storied history with homelessness: Can we become a ‘model community’?

Imminent closing of Purple Cliffs renews a complex history of unhoused camping, community action
James Johnson, an on-and-off Purple Cliffs resident since the camp was established by La Plata County in 2018, makes his way to one of the camp’s community shelters on Friday south of Durango along La Posta Road (County Road 213). La Plata County always intended for Purple Cliffs to be a temporary solution, though it has now been in place for nearly four years, said County Manager Chuck Stevens. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Homelessness is not new to Durango.

It has existed in some form for decades.

Growing up in Durango in the 1970s and 1980s, Ed Aber saw homelessness. It was less visible then, but people would still sleep under bridges and along the Animas River Trail.

“It’s always been an issue, and law enforcement’s response was always to chase (homelessness) off their property they’re responsible for,” said Aber, who now leads the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office Detentions Division.

When Sean Smith joined the Sheriff’s Office in 2001, law enforcement’s approach was the same as it had always been.

“The only management solution there was ... when homeless camps popped up we’d find them and we’d tell them, ‘Nope, you can’t do this.’ And we would go clean things up,” Smith said.

The recent push to establish a managed camp and the closing of Purple Cliffs in September have brought homelessness to the forefront of public discourse in Durango.

Purple Cliffs, the unhoused campsite along La Posta Road (County Road 213), on Friday south of Durango. Durango has a complex history with unhoused camping. Historically, law enforcement simply disbanded the camps when they would arise, but that policy changed in 2015 with the election of La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith after a court ruling that determined it was unconstitutional for Boise, Idaho, to criminalize sleeping or camping in public places. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

But while the inability to find a location for a managed camp has come to symbolize inaction on homelessness in Durango, both governments in tandem with local unhoused advocacy and support groups have also made progress in recent years.

As homelessness overwhelms some urban communities such as Denver and Portland on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, what’s clear from those who are working on the issue in Durango is that the time is now to begin taking steps toward solutions.

A managed camp and a history of homeless camping

Durango has a long and convoluted history with homeless camps, but 2015 was an inflection point.

Smith was elected La Plata County sheriff in 2014, and with Smith’s election came a change of policy.

Smith and the county authorized camping, both to change law enforcement’s response to homelessness with what some have described as a “whack-a-mole” strategy and on the heels of Bell v. City of Boise, a 2013 ruling in which the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Boise’s attempts to criminalize sleeping or camping in public places were unconstitutional.

Carl Bartlett pauses at a homeless man’s camp behind the Durango Tech Center in 2015. Bartlett was a homeless camper and leader at the rudimentary managed camp Capt. Ed Aber of the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office helped to establish in 2015. (Durango Herald file)

Starting in 2015, La Plata County and the Sheriff’s Office allowed Durango’s unhoused community to camp on county-owned land west of the city near the Durango Tech Center, and over the next three years Durango’s unhoused community camped in some capacity in the area, though they were forced to move several times.

In 2018, a number of events changed the fabric of homelessness in Durango. City Council sent La Plata County a letter in March requesting the county end the camping in the area, citing severe neighborhood impacts with violence, yelling, intoxication and even a murder reported near Ella Vita Court.

In its place, the city said it planned to set up a camping site bordering the Durango Dog Park along Lightner Creek complete with “portable restrooms, dumpsters, and a safe place to store possessions.”

The 416 Fire ignited in June 2018 north of Durango, and fears of wildfire led the city and county to evacuate the unhoused community from the Tech Center to Escalante Middle School, where the Red Cross had set up a temporary sheltering site.

After the fire, Durango’s unhoused community was left in a state of limbo.

Campers initially went to a site near Greenmount Cemetery, a location that has since been named Elkview. At the same time, the Lightner Creek site failed because of community opposition and concerns bout uranium mill tailings.

Durango resident Royce Cowan moves his camp to Purple Cliffs after the site was designated as a location for Durango’s unhoused community. In 2018, a number of events changed the fabric of homelessness in Durango, ultimately leading La Plata County to establish Purple Cliffs. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

While camping at Greenmount Cemetery, the city required unhoused campers to take down their tents by 9 a.m. each day and leave the area until 6 p.m.

At the time, Councilor Dick White said the county worried that allowing all-day camping would make it responsible for finding a new location for homeless residents, and the city did not have a piece of property it was willing to designate for use as a camping site.

As the city planned to close the Greenmount Cemetery in August 2018, it received a scathing letter from the American Civil Liberties Union, attacking the city’s camping ban, which prevented anyone from camping or sheltering on city-owned or managed property.

“Rather than addressing the root causes of homelessness, in recent years, City leaders have made concerted efforts to push unhoused people out of public places, out of sight and out of mind, and to criminalize their very existence,” the letter read. “It is cruel and unconstitutional to criminalize camping in public spaces when – due to City action – homeless residents have nowhere else to go.”

With winter approaching, La Plata County allowed camping at Purple Cliffs as an alternative.

“The board (of county commissioners) made a decision in 2018 to allow people to camp at Purple Cliffs in order to be able to winterize their tents,” said La Plata County Manager Chuck Stevens. “It was never envisioned to move past spring of ’19.”

But it did. And in 2020, the city of Durango and La Plata County adopted their Strategic Plan on Homelessness, which provides a framework for addressing homelessness in Durango.

Consultants with The Athena Group developed the plan with months of input from the Planning and Action Team on Homelessness, a group more than 25 strong with stakeholders from the city, county, law enforcement, unhoused advocacy groups, housing nonprofits, health services providers and business leaders, among others.

Among the gaps the plan identified was the need for an organized (managed) camp.

Camps scattered at Purple Cliffs, the unhoused campsite, along La Posta Road (County Road 213) on Friday south of Durango. Since the official search for a location for a managed camp began in 2020, La Plata County has been increasingly vocal in its concerns about Purple Cliffs, which include wildfires, violence, greywater and public health. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Since then, a managed camp has undergone many iterations with multiple sites failing to come to fruition from both the city and the county.

The Neighbors in Need Alliance, an unhoused advocacy group formed in 2019, proposed Elkview as a site in 2020, but plans fizzled because of community opposition. Another potential location was Colorado Parks and Wildlife land behind Bodo Industrial Park, but bureaucratic challenges with the state and federal governments eliminated the possibility.

La Plata County moved earlier this year to locate a managed camp on county-owned property near the Durango Tech Center but was met with overwhelming opposition from residents of the Ella Vita Court and Crestview neighborhoods.

The county was the closest either government has come when it entered into a $1.7 million contract to buy four properties along U.S. Highway 160 specifically for use as a managed camp.

But in June, due diligence revealed concerns about the site and county commissioners voted to terminate the contract.

Since the official search for a location for a managed camp began in 2020, La Plata County has been increasingly vocal in its concerns about Purple Cliffs, which include wildfires, violence, greywater and public health.

La Plata County has given Sept. 30 as the deadline for closing Purple Cliffs, the unhoused campsite south of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

With the county steadfast in its view that Purple Cliffs is untenable, the commissioners and Smith released a letter on June 18 saying that the county will close Purple Cliffs this fall.

The county has set a closing date of Sept. 30.

Progress and solutions

Unhoused camping is the most visible sign of homelessness in Durango, which is in part why a managed camp has become the focal point for addressing homelessness in the city.

It would be easy to miss the less pronounced signs of where the city, county and community groups are tackling homelessness.

“We have Espero Apartments. We now have a resource center. We’ve got new organizations since 2015 who are working on housing people and helping people move forward,” said Anne Morse, executive director of Manna. “... We’re at a critical point, and what’s going to happen next is going to be very monumental with how we’re moving forward. But I feel like we’re getting there.”

Tabitha Niver, left, shares a laugh with Marisa Hunt, resource center manager at Manna, on Friday while talking about what Manna services support Durango’s unhoused community. Manna’s new resource center, which opened in March, was one of the strategies for addressing homelessness identified in the Durango-La Plata County Strategic Plan on Homelessness. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Two of the most significant developments for addressing homelessness in Durango have come in the last 12 months.

Housing Solutions for the Southwest opened Espero Apartments, a permanent supportive housing complex, in October 2021 on city land in west Durango.

With about 40 units, Espero Apartments offers integrated services such as health care and food to those who live at the complex. It specifically serves those who have been homeless, live with a disabling condition or earn 30% or less of the Area Median Income.

The apartment complex more than doubled the number of permanent supportive housing units in Durango, a key strategy identified in the Durango-La Plata County Strategic Plan on Homelessness.

“The fact that we didn’t have a dedicated supportive services building in our region was a big gap,” said Elizabeth Salkind, executive director of Housing Solutions for the Southwest. “It doesn’t represent the solution for every person experiencing homelessness, but it does present a very specific type of setting that is the right fit for some people.”

Housing Solutions for the Southwest’s Espero Apartments in Durango opened in October 2021 and more than doubled the number of permanent supportive housing units in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

In March, Manna opened its resource center, one of the top priorities from the joint strategic plan on homelessness.

The resource center offers meals, a food market, showers and bathrooms, computers, and a washer and dryer. On-site case managers work with unhoused people, connecting them with housing, job development and other social services.

Other initiatives have popped up recently to address causes of homelessness, too.

The city continues to move forward with developers TWG Development on an about $30 million project that will transform the Best Western along U.S. Highway 160 into an affordable housing complex for those with incomes 60% of the area median income or less.

La Plata County extended $1.5 million in financing to help residents of Westside Mobile Park purchase the park, with additional funding supporting the purchase of Triangle Trailer Park next door.

The city of Durango is partnering with TWG Development on a roughly $30 million project that will transform the Best Western along U.S. Highway 160 into an affordable housing complex, addressing one of the root causes of homelessness. (Shane Benjamin/Durango Herald file)

Preserving existing affordable housing was another strategy outlined in the joint strategic plan on homelessness, and the action prevented more than 50 families from being displaced with few places to go.

Though the elected officials of La Plata County and the city of Durango have expressed frustrations with one another for years over their inability to find a site for a managed camp, the county’s announcement that it will close Purple Cliffs have renewed efforts to find a site and strengthened their cooperation.

The city and county managers and representatives of the elected bodies have begun meeting weekly to try to find an alternative to Purple Cliffs, with City Council set to hold an executive session Tuesday to discuss a potential site for a homeless camp and La Plata County offering $1 million toward a solution for dispersed camping.

“It’s really most important what (the elected bodies) are talking about today,” said Kevin Hall, community development director for the city of Durango. “What we’ve heard loud and clear is that there’s interest (from) both sets of elected officials to find partnerships that resolve or at least address this issue to the best of our ability.”

Previous initiatives that have been implemented in Durango and found success could guide the way.

In 2015, when the county first allowed camping west of Durango, Aber helped to organize a rudimentary managed camp.

Aber held weekly meetings and instituted five rules for campers, including keeping tidy camps and limiting their footprint. He implemented a system of “camp hosts” who represented the community and worked with Aber.

Capt. Ed Aber of the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office talks with Fritz, an unhoused camper, at his campsite on county land north of the Durango Tech Center. In 2015, Aber helped to organize a rudimentary managed camp when the county first allowed camping on its land west of Durango. While the camp was open, eight community members moved into housing and three began engaging with mental health services for the first time in their lives, Aber said. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

In turn, campers developed their own 23 rules geared toward accountability, reducing their trash from 24 pickup loads to eight.

While the camp was open, eight community members moved into housing and three began engaging with mental health services for the first time in their lives, Aber said.

NINA is prepared to expand on that vision.

“All NINA has ever been wanting to do is ... be an organization that could manage a managed camp,” said Caroline Kinser, board chairwoman of NINA.

“That’s the direction that we want to head because what we’re trying to do is enable people to have a permanent enough home for a while that they can get a job, because they can take a shower before they go to work,” she said.

Even with a managed camp, the challenge remains that there is no single solution to homelessness.

Homelessness is individual – no two people have the same causes of their homelessness nor do they have the same paths out – and that requires a range of options, Salkind said.

But what’s clear is that to find an alternative to Purple Cliffs and solutions to homelessness in Durango, it will require commitment and political will from elected officials and buy-in from the Durango community.

NINA is preparing to release the results of a homelessness count the group commissioned. The count tallied about 400 people experiencing homelessness in La Plata County, Kinser said.

James Mitchell Lipska, left, community kitchen chef at Manna, and Seanan Culloty, executive chef at Manna, prepare meals to go in March in the nonprofit’s new resource center. Homelessness is individual – no two people have the same causes of their homelessness nor have do they have the same paths out – and that requires a range of options, said Elizabeth Salkind, executive director of Housing Solutions for the Southwest. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

It represent a more than 100% increase in the county’s unhoused population from 2019, the most recent year comprehensive data is available.

The increase in homelessness locally and its explosion in urban communities like Denver and Portland is why now is the time to address it, said Stevens, the county manager.

“Homelessness in our community is still at a magnitude and a size that we can deal with it successfully,” Stevens said. “It’s infuriating for me that we continue to watch it grow out of control, where if we can put the framework in place now I think we could be a model community.”

“We’re not Denver. We’re not Portland. We’re not Seattle. We’re not there yet,” he said. “If we can get a framework in place, we don’t ever have to get there.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com



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