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La Plata County, city of Durango discuss Sept. 30 closure of Purple Cliffs homeless camp

Government officials will work on expedited schedule to identify one or more locations for managed camps
La Plata County is determined to close the Purple Cliffs homeless camp on La Posta Road (County Road 213) on Sept. 30, regardless of whether a new managed campsite has been identified or secured. County commissioners met with Durango City Council on Wednesday to discuss the county’s closure plan and how the two governments can work together to find a new location for unhoused residents. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Durango City Council and La Plata County commissioners met Wednesday to smooth over tensions and hash out plans for working together to identify a new location for a managed homeless camp ahead of the county’s locked-in Sept. 30 deadline to close Purple Cliffs.

Durango Mayor Barbara Noseworthy said the need to find a suitable location for a managed homeless camp is more urgent than ever with La Plata County’s commitment to close Purple Cliffs, which would leave hundreds of unhoused residents with nowhere else to go.

Commissioners made it clear they are unwilling to budge on the closure date. But the county has agreed to commit $1 million from American Rescue Plan Act funding toward establishing a managed camp.

At Tuesday’s meeting, County Manager Chuck Stevens said the county wants to approach the closure “in a trauma-informed manner,” “legally” and “compassionately.”

Stevens said Purple Cliffs has always been a temporary solution. If camping there is allowed this winter, that will mark the fifth winter since it was opened as an unmanaged camp.

He said in order to meet the county’s targeted date of Sept. 30, the county must begin notifying residents no later than Aug. 1.

“The sheriff and his deputies, they have a liaison that works out there routinely,” he said.

The first thing the county needs to determine is how to assist displaced campers and what can be done with their property. He said in discussions with the Durango/La Plata Coordinating Council on Homelessness, the plan – which is still taking shape – is to personally interview Purple Cliffs residents to determine their specific needs.

From there, the county plans to try to connect homeless residents with specific services, starting with the most vulnerable population. The results of the county’s survey will also be shared with the public so city and county residents can get a better idea of who lives at Purple Cliffs.

Signs will be posted and oral notice will be given alerting residents of the pending closure. If an alternative campsite is identified before the scheduled closure date, that will be communicated to residents, Stevens said.

Diana Williams, a volunteer with Agape Durango, carries trash to a dumpster on La Posta Road (County Road 213) on Saturday at the Purple Cliffs homeless camp. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Cleanup and reclamation of the Purple Cliffs site will begin in October. At that point, all personal property must be removed from the site, he said.

“If there are folks out there that are physically disabled or they have personal circumstances that they need assistance, they only need to ask and we’ll make sure they get the assistance that they need,” Stevens said. “We’ve done that in the past when we had to move campers from behind the Tech Center as a result of the 416 Fire.”

Personal property not removed by October will be removed by law enforcement, he said. The property will be stored in “an accessible location,” he said.

Some alternative locations for campers remain available if a new campsite hasn’t been determined by Sept. 30, Stevens said:

  • The Volunteers of America Shelter.
  • Southwest Safehouse, also operated by VOA.
  • Espero Apartments (if there is availability).
  • Public lands camping, in accordance with applicable regulations.
  • City manager can designate a campsite.

City councilors were explicit about their concerns that closing the unmanaged campsite without a new location or locations identified would cause the homeless population to disperse across the city.

The governing bodies decided to form a joint group, including city and county staff members, the Durango/La Plata Coordinating Council on Homelessness, and Noseworthy and Commissioner Matt Salka as liaisons for the city and county.

The group will meet weekly to first and foremost identify a managed campsite, and then to breakdown logistics of managing camp services, such as trash pickup and the probable need for multiple campsites.

Multiple campsites are being considered, in part, to separate families from substance abusers. Another reason for multiple campsites is to accommodate the number of homeless residents living in the area. The COVID-19 pandemic and skyrocketing costs of living have made it more likely that the homeless population will increase, not decrease, said Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton. Multiple smaller camps could be more ideal than one large one.

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith and Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer attended the joint meeting.

Brammer said when the city closed the homeless camp near the Durango Tech Center, the police department observed a 20% reduction in calls for service in that area. When the homeless population was relocated to the campsite at Purple Cliffs, there was a 20% increase in calls for service near Walmart and Purple Cliffs.

He said if the Purple Cliffs population is dispersed with no solution in place, the population will return to where the most services in town are offered, including the Central Business District in downtown Durango.

A key concern for city and county officials is that their efforts to find a new managed campsite location will revisit the same ground of past possible campsites that have been rejected by the community.

Smith acknowledged the conversation seems to be cyclical.

Durango City Councilor Kim Baxter raised the idea of pursuing a consultation plan for finding a new managed campsite produced by Jenn Lopez, an affordable housing consultant in Durango who helped develop the Durango/La Plata County Homeless Strategy in 2020.

Councilors agreed they need outside expertise and urgently.

Porter-Norton suggested that if the governing bodies haven’t made headway by the middle of August, they should hold themselves accountable and inform the public of where things stand.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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