One of the most visible and complex challenges facing the three candidates for La Plata County sheriff is how to manage increasing issues surrounding homelessness.
Challengers Charles Hamby, a Republican, and Dean Mize, unaffiliated, look to unseat Sheriff Sean Smith, a Democrat in his first term, this November.
Each candidate has different ideas about how to go forward.
The city of Durango and La Plata County had bans on camping on public lands, but in 2015, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office started allowing homeless people to stay on county land near the Durango Tech Center, west of downtown Durango.
The decision was made, in part, after the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division weighed in on a case in Boise, Idaho, that said punishing someone for sleeping outside, when there’s no other available alternatives, such as a shelter or camp, was unconstitutional.
“If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless,” the DOJ said.
With the city of Durango enforcing its no camping ban, Smith said it put La Plata County and the Sheriff’s Office in a predicament: If the county enforced the ban, it could face litigation.
There have been countless other court decisions that have reinforced the ruling that criminalizing someone for sleeping in public spaces when they have no other options is unconstitutional, Smith said.
Most recently, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided people cannot be prosecuted for sleeping outside if shelter access is lacking, ruling it would violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
“The 8th Amendment prohibits the imposition of criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter,” Judge Marsha S. Berzon wrote for the court.
Colorado is in the 10th Circuit, but the ruling sets a strong precedent, Smith said. And, it’s a sign if the county were to enforce the no-camping ban, it could face litigation the county is destined to lose.
“I’d rather we not go to court and be told how to handle our own problem,” Smith said.
While there is no current litigation to this effect in the 10th Circuit, the American Civil Liberties Union has sent pointed messages to the city of Durango, telling it to stop enforcing the camping ban if homeless people have nowhere else to go.
The ACLU has not included the county in these letters, mainly because Smith has not enforced the county’s camping ban and has instituted temporary homeless camps.
“La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith recognized that the city had insufficient shelter space and that ticketing homeless people for camping when they had nowhere else to go was not only cruel, but also unconstitutional,” the ACLU wrote in its Aug. 24 letter to the city.
Despite the ACLU’s position, Hamby said he would enforce the no-camping ban, if elected.
“If they’re (homeless people camping) in violation of the law, I’ll enforce the law,” Hamby said. “I’m not going to be intimidated or bullied by the ACLU.”
Mize said with the issue unsettled in the 10th Circuit, he would judge each situation on a “case-by-case basis.”
“I’m not against taking a chance if what I’m doing is right,” he said. “I’m not afraid of a lawsuit. I don’t want a lawsuit, but I’m going to do what appears to be right.”
With unprecedented fire danger this summer, Smith set up a temporary homeless camp near the Durango Tech Center, closing down dispersed camping in the area and enforcing the no-camping ban.
The site was closed in May after the city of Durango promised to open a homeless camp. The city has since reneged on its promise, throwing the plight of the homeless into disarray.
With bans on camping on city of Durango and La Plata County lands, homeless people have few options other than to camp illegally or go elsewhere.
Smith said that going forward, the Sheriff’s Office should not be the lead agency addressing management strategies for homelessness. Instead, he said nonprofits should take the lead.
“The Sheriff’s Office should be a piece of the equation, but not the forefront of it,” he said.
Hamby said the most proactive approach in dealing with homelessness is enforcement. As far as coming up with effective management, the Sheriff’s Office should be part of the conversation, but not go outside the scope of law enforcement.
“It’s not always popular, but a lot of what we do when it comes to enforcing the law is not popular, that’s just the nature of the job,” he said.
Mize said it is crucial to identify people, through psychological evaluations, within the homeless population, to find out whether they want to work toward a job and housing, or whether they are traveling through and want to remain vagrant.
“It’s important to talk to people as if they’re people, not as if they’re a nuisance,” Mize said. “If they want a home and want to be productive, we should help them.”
All three candidates said they would not set up a homeless camp run by the Sheriff’s Office.
Smith, however, said there are countless examples in other communities where a homeless camp, usually run by a nonprofit, has helped ease many of the issues that arise in the homeless community.
For three years, Smith said the homeless camp in Durango proved successful.
Having a good majority of homeless people in one place allows easy access for services. And, when a camp is self-governed, a sense of community and ownership forms.
“We’ve got three years of experience that showed us our numbers are small enough in this community, if we take a proactive approach ... you can manage the situation a lot better,” Smith said.
Hamby said the temporary homeless camp didn’t “accomplish anything” and created issues for residents adjacent to the camp with associated trash and at times violent behavior.
The camp attracted more homeless people to Durango, he said.
“It doesn’t take long for word to get around that you can stay here and they (local law enforcement) won’t do anything,” he said. “It just encourages more people to come and break the law.”
Mize said a camp is not fair to the people in the county who pay taxes on their house.
In recent weeks, Smith said that deputies are actively sweeping the Tech Center and areas south of town. Deputies aren’t ticketing people, but they are making homeless people aware camping is illegal and they should move on.
As a result, deputies are seeing more defiant behavior.
“We had built a relationship working with this community: they had rules, they self-policed, they communicated with us,” he said. “Now, we’re seeing people try to hide from us and confront our officers. It put my deputies in a bad situation.”
Hamby reiterated enforcement is the solution.
“I think once it’s established that illegal camping will not be tolerated, it will start diminishing very rapidly,” he said.
But Smith said that approach is untenable. Not only is it constitutionally suspect, the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have the resources to constantly sweep homeless camps.
“That’s why I am for the city to work with us on finding a place that meets the legal threshold,” he said. “We have a lot of very intelligent people in our community. ... We can find a strategy that will work for our community. If we don’t, we will be part of a lawsuit.”