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‘Home-free’ residents prepare for winter in Durango

Frigid months can be fatal for people sleeping outside
David Surles, who camps on the west side of Durango, said Monday he’s ready for winter. He has a tent, three sleeping bags, five pillows and at least two sleeping mats. The tent has a tarp over it supported by a sturdy branch that will keep the snow off of his tent. Surles uses four different campsites that follow the sun to keep him warm or cool, depending on the season.

Timothy Sargent is preparing for the cold months ahead. For him, staying warm is a matter of life and death.

“It is so important to have someplace that you can go and be warm,” said Sargent, who has been without a home for about five years.

Keeping warm during the winter months is something of a science for Sargent. He takes great precautions to prepare himself and his shelter to avoid freezing.

Although the city stopped enforcing its camping ban at night, keeping a tent up during the day is still prohibited by the city of Durango, which requires people who sleep on public land to take down their tents between the hours of sunrise and sunset.

But that becomes unrealistic for homeless residents trying to survive the winter.

“It takes a good couple hours, and you can’t go and take it down, especially when there’s snow all around,” Sargent said. “It’s not just a simple tent, it’s a wintering camp. ... We need a place that can be kept up until spring.”

Many campers move away during the cold months, in search of warmer climates. But for a select few, winter is no deterrent to the “home-free” lifestyle – a term Sargent and others use to identify people without a permanent residence.

It all comes down to layers, he said. First, he gets a tent from Walmart and a bunch of blankets to insulate it. Fleece or light-weight, synthetic blankets work best, Sargent said – those blankets won’t collapse the tent like a heavy-weight blanket will.

Sargent said he drapes blankets over his tent between the inside layer and the rain cover – enough to block out the light – using safety pins to affix the blankets to his tent so they won’t slide off. Then comes a tarp roof for the tent – strung up to nearby trees – somewhat of an A-frame structure to keep the snow from collecting on top of his tent and collapsing his shelter.

David Surles shows a reflective coating on the inside of his tent that helps retain heat. Surles has three sleeping bags, five pillows and at least two sleeping mats.

But even that isn’t enough. Sargent said he buys two or three pillar candles that last anywhere between 60 and 80 hours, to produce heat and light inside his tent. Setting all that up takes time, he said.

Every night in America, there are hundreds of thousands of people who sleep outside because they have nowhere else to go, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of those individuals experience alcohol or drug abuse, mental illness or other diseases like HIV or tuberculous, according to the CDC.

On a single night in 2017, Colorado, California, Florida and Oregon accounted for nearly two-thirds of all unsheltered people in families with children, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

On a single night in January of last year, Colorado had the seventh largest homeless veteran population. The Centennial state also accounted for one of the largest increases in homeless population from 2016 to 2017, according to HUD – 20 in every 10,000 Coloradans were homeless in 2017.

Some of those people don’t have the means to purchase shelter, so they may purposefully get incarcerated because it gives them a warm place to sleep and a meal to eat.

“Some people give up their freedom just to survive,” Sargent said.

David Surles, who has lived home-free for about seven years, said he has a friend who has committed himself to the detox center in Durango more than 380 times in the past few years just to get out of the cold.

The first year Surles was home-free, he said he wasn’t prepared for the cold that would come. The former transit engineer said he took a job at Denny’s for warmth and a free meal.

Surles chose the lifestyle, he said: “I want to be home-free; I don’t want a light bulb to change, a lawn to mow or a garbage disposal to fix.”

Now, he’s figured out how to stay warm: one tent, three sleeping bags, five pillows and at least two sleeping mats. Staying off the ground is most important, he said – the earth can suck the warmth out of a person.

Staying away from water is also important, Sargent said. It’s colder by the water, so sleeping under a bridge, although it provides shelter, may not be the best choice for people without homes.

David Surles relaxes Tuesday at his campsite. He has been camping for about seven years, through summers and winters.

It’s those people, the ones who are new to the lifestyle or may not have the means or the wisdom to purchase warm gear, that Sargent said he most worries about. It can get cold enough to freeze a person to death, something that happens almost every year, he said.

“Imagine it’s 12 degrees and all you have is your clothes,” Sargent said.

No deaths have been reported so far this fall as a result of cold weather, said La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith.

Empathy can go a long way to help people without permanent shelter, Sargent said. “If you see someone outside, ask,” Sargent said. “They might be really cold.”

People without a home are treated as second-class citizens in Durango, Surles said. But a bit of kindness and recognition could go a long way to change that status, he said. Although people may not have permanent shelter, they still contribute to the community through the things they buy at local stores to survive, he said. They still have constitutional rights, he said.

“We are humans, and we contribute to society in our own way,” Surles said. “That should be acknowledged and respected.”


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