As a contentious proposal for a new homeless camp near Greenmount Cemetery inches forward, some homeless residents in Durango have spoken out: They want to stay in place.
About 60 unhoused people call Purple Cliffs, a designated homeless camp, “home.” But the camp’s future is uncertain: La Plata County and the city of Durango are wrestling with alternative options, while a potential shutdown deadline in December looms. The community-created camp proposal near Greenmount Cemetery houses too few people and faces outspoken opposition.
A week after the season’s first snowfall, campers at Purple Cliffs along La Posta Road (County Road 213) say it’s simply too late to change sites.
“It’s hard staying in a tent during the winter to begin with. The necessary steps that lead into having a successful camp in the wintertime – you don’t get time to do that if you’re rushed in the fall,” said Rick Foisel, who lives at Purple Cliffs.
Campers have created trails, dug stairs, built temporary shelters, prepared campsites and added amenities like showers to the Purple Cliffs site. They are already preparing for winter by gathering blankets to insulate their tents and building additional shelters from the snow. Foisel and others are worried they wouldn’t have time to prepare another site before winter, particularly structures that could withstand heavy snow.
“I think many things need to be considered: A) It’s a pandemic. B) It’s a pandemic,” said Tim Sargent, a camp leader at Purple Cliffs. “The last thing you want is to have 60 people, who were once in one area, now throughout your community.”
If the camp is shut down, he said, people will most likely return to their former campsites above Ella Vita Court, near the proposed camp location by Greenmount Cemetery, or along the Animas River.
“It’s inhumane and ridiculous,” said Astro Avila, another camper at Purple Cliffs. “It’s impossible to set up a camp on that timeline. If you’re gonna kick me out, at least make sure I got someplace to go.”
The city of Durango and La Plata County can’t agree on where that alternative location should be. At a recent City Council meeting, Durango residents and officials discussed the idea of keeping Purple Cliffs open, even though the site is on La Plata County land.
La Plata County commissioners have resisted that idea, saying the site was supposed to be temporary. The commissioners last week supported a shutdown deadline in an attempt to force the city of Durango to honor its promise to establish its own permanent camp.
A community group in Durango, Neighbors in Need Alliance, stepped up this year to create an alternative supportive housing proposal. The proposal is for a transitional housing camp, managed to enforce rules and guidelines, that could house up to 40 people at a site near Greenmount Cemetery.
But the public has pushed back. G. Harris, a community member, created a petition online opposed to the camp location. The petition on Change.org gathered more than 800 signatures in its first week, about 48% of whom said they were from Durango, said Gerry Harris, who lives near the proposed site, during public comment at a City Council meeting Tuesday.
Before the meeting, almost all of the public comment opposed the proposal, including statements from county commissioner candidate Marsha Porter-Norton and the board of the Durango Tech Center, which is adjacent to Greenmount.
The La Plata Electric Association also requested more time to look over its utility easements and expressed safety concerns about the camp’s location, according to a city staff report.
“We were just trying to help,” said Caroline Kinser, a NINA volunteer. “We often look at each other and think, ‘How did it get like this?’”
NINA’s proposal includes utility hook-ups and other permitting requirements that are too complicated to complete before the end of the year.
At its meeting Tuesday night, City Council planned to consider a temporary emergency ordinance, lasting 60 days before it could be renewed, that would allow NINA to set up short-term housing.
Councilors had not completed their discussion of the temporary emergency ordinance or alternative locations for the permanent camp as of 9:30 p.m. Tuesday. City and county officials planned to meet Wednesday to discuss their options for the camp.
One option that NINA, residents and the Purple Cliffs campers agree on: keeping the Purple Cliffs site open.
Kinser said NINA’s proposed transitional housing camp could help form a continuum of care for people interested in moving from homelessness in a low barrier camp like Purple Cliffs to more secure housing at a place like Espero Apartments, a new supportive housing development.
Residents near the proposed permanent camp by Greenmount want it to go somewhere else to ease their concerns about safety, crime, property values and quality of life.
“After all that back and forth, they finally came up with at least one location: here,” said Sargent of Purple Cliffs. “This is the one functioning camp that they have. This is actually working.”
Campers at Purple Cliffs follow county rules and in-camp community rules. The site is away from neighborhoods and large enough to accommodate people at minimum cost, he said.
“When they dropped us off … they thought they had a homeless camp. We have an unhoused community here,” Sargent said. “Many people start to feel that this truly is their home.”