La Plata County government is taking over the search for a new homeless camp after years of failed attempts by the city of Durango to identify a permanent location.
The existing site, called Purple Cliffs, was never set up to be a permanent campsite. It was established in 2018 along La Posta Road (County Road 213) south of downtown Durango almost on an emergency basis to give homeless campers a place to go during an intense wildfire season.
The city of Durango agreed to identify a more permanent location but has so far been unable to do so. In some ways, the onus has been on the city of Durango to provide a campsite: Durango prohibits camping within city limits. Constitutional lawyers, including those working for the American Civil Liberties Union, have warned Durango that citywide camping bans are unconstitutional if the city doesn’t provide a designated place for residents to rest and sleep.
“It is cruel and unconstitutional to criminalize camping in public spaces when – due to city action – homeless residents have nowhere else to go,” the ACLU wrote the city in 2018.
The city missed a deadline set by the county for identifying a permanent homeless camp. The next deadline was set for May 2022. But now, the county is taking a more hands-on approach to resolve the issue, announcing on Wednesday it will take the lead on identifying a new site.
“The county would like to act as one independent government and see if we can go and find a location where we can establish a managed camp,” said Chuck Stevens, county manager, in a presentation to the La Plata County commissioners.
A managed camp would provide a formalized camp structure. It would focus on year-round homeless residents in Durango, not people who pass through during the summer season, he said.
It could be a challenge to find a county-owned land parcel large enough for a managed camp that can accommodate the growing population at Purple Cliffs, Stevens said. The Board of County Commissioners will have a work session as early as Wednesday to discuss next steps.
“There are no certainties,” Stevens said. “... I don’t have a piece of land in mind. I don’t know if we have a piece of land that we can actually get to work for this purpose.”
In early August, about 84 camps were sprawled on the steep hillside at Purple Cliffs, west of the Animas River near the Durango Walmart.
The campsite includes a makeshift kitchen, shower, handwashing stations and other amenities built up over the years. It’s a centralized location where people can be connected to services offered by local groups, such as the Neighbors in Need Alliance.
Campers at Purple Cliffs have said they’d like to stay in that location, particularly after setting up so many amenities. The city of Durango has suggested the same idea.
But the county says the Purple Cliffs campsite is not a suitable location because of issues with wastewater, and pedestrian and driver safety on the two-lane road with no shoulders. Trash is an issue, as is bear activity, wildfire risk and environmental air quality.
It’s not good for visual impacts as people enter town or business impacts, Stevens said. Purple Cliffs also does not meet La Plata County land-use code requirements or state requirements for campsites.
The county initially allowed camping at the site in response to impacts from the 416 Fire and the displacement of the homeless community from its former location near the Durango Tech Center. City of Durango ordinances placed restrictions on camping and the winterization of tents, which meant people experiencing housing insecurity had few other places to go.
“Purple Cliffs has always been identified as a temporary solution and was primarily a humanitarian-based action by the Board of County Commissioners,” Stevens said.
Since 2018, progress has been made on providing support to people experiencing homelessness.
The city and county established a strategic plan on homelessness in 2020, and Manna, a Durango soup kitchen, is launching new support services as part of the plan. The Durango Community Shelter provides temporary indoor shelter, and Espero Apartments provides permanent supportive housing for people who have experienced homelessness.
“We have these different pieces. One of the pieces we think is missing is a place for a managed camp,” Stevens said.
For almost four years, the city of Durango has repeatedly weighed locations that could work as an alternative campsite, including options in Bodo Industrial Park and near Greenmount Cemetery.
“We’ve tried,” said José Madrigal, Durango city manager. But cost, bureaucratic hurdles and the lack of public support have frequently stalled progress.
The city has tried sites to no avail. The county commissioners threatened in fall 2020 to shut the site down if the city of Durango did not decide on a new location.
The city and county worked for almost a year establishing an agreement for how Purple Cliffs would be managed. They discussed operational needs, such as providing law enforcement coverage, waste management and other services. They tried to find ways to bring the site into compliance with county and state regulations.
“We agreed on 99.9% of all the issues we were trying to address,” Stevens said.
The sticking point was the closure deadline.
The city could not agree to a closure date in a legal agreement without knowing it would have an alternative site in place, Madrigal and Stevens said.
“We reached a point of impasse where the county was set on establishing a clear closure date. The city just couldn’t get to a clear closure date,” Stevens said.
The two entities will continue working together on managing services at the site, and the city will still contribute financial resources and other resources.
The city also decided to purchase a Best Western Hotel for $7 million Tuesday in order to provide affordable and transitional housing.
“We continue to work and not give up,” Madrigal said.
But the county will take over the search for a new location.
“If we can identify a piece of county land, and go through the land-use process on the front end – that’s a public process,” Stevens said. “The citizens of our community would have a chance to voice concerns and we’d have a chance to try to mitigate those concerns on the front end. Not in a reactive mode as we watch the (homeless) population grow and grow out of control out at Purple Cliffs.”