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Homeless find overnight refuge in Durango Post Office

Postmaster proposes locking door to keep people from sleeping in lobby
Tiffany Williams, a supervisor at the Durango Post Office, shows one of two areas where homeless people have been sleeping and putting out their cigarettes on the floor.

Sean Schtakleff has become Durango’s impromptu innkeeper for people who don’t have a shelter, but it’s not a title he wants. He already has a job – postmaster for the U.S. Postal Service.

Almost every morning Schtakleff or an employee walks into the Durango Post Office, someone is sleeping in the lobby. The lobby is left unlocked so residents can get their mail 24 hours a day, Schtakleff said.

People leave food and trash, put cigarettes out on the floor and have broken into a locked thermostat to control the heat. Although it might be a problem, Schtakleff said it makes sense.

“It’s warm, and not many people come to check their P.O. box in the middle of the night,” he said. “Where else are the homeless going to sleep in Durango?”

Post office staff and patrons called the Durango Police Department to the facility 227 times in 2018, 83 times about trespassing, according to law enforcement records. About 40 calls ended in citations for trespassing and two in arrests for unrelated warrants, police said.

What else is new?

People have been sleeping in the post office nearly every day for at least two years, Schtakleff said, and the problem has only gotten worse.

Post office employees tried to police the situation themselves, telling people in the morning “to hit the road,” Schtakleff said. Asking people to leave solved the immediate problem for people trying to access their post office boxes, but the tactic didn’t stop systemic problems.

By November 2018, the issue got to the point where Durango police asked Schtakleff to report people anytime he or an employee found someone sleeping in the lobby, he said.

“We’re at the point where we’re not dealing with them anymore,” he said.

Police often sweep the post office in the early hours to ensure no one is sleeping there, and every time officers are called to the mail facility, they arrive within minutes, Schtakleff said. But the problem persists.

What can be done?

The postmaster said he’s taking the matter into his own hands. Schtakleff said he asked the district office in Denver a few months ago for a lock to keep unauthorized people from the facility. Authorized users would be given a door code in an effort to keep the lobby open for mail business late at night or early in the morning, he said.

“We are doing everything in our power to try to rectify it,” Schtakleff said. “We want to make our lobby a safe and reliable place, where people don’t feel they’re inconvenienced.”

But the problem is that some people don’t have anywhere else to go, said Donna Mae Baukat, executive director of Community Compassion Outreach, a local nonprofit dedicated to helping people survive and exit homelessness.

Baukat said one man told her he knew sleeping in the post office was wrong, but he needed to get out of the cold.

“I would imagine that this occurs because (people experiencing homelessness) feel like they need to be somewhere safe,” Baukat said. “People are just picking and choosing where they think somebody won’t detect them. It isn’t their fault because they don’t have the property identified to them where they’re allowed without being bothered.”

bhauff@durangoherald.com

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