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La Plata County tells Durango to find a homeless camp solution ‘lickety-split’

City councilors say it’s taking longer than expected to find long-term location
The future of the Purple Cliffs homeless camp south of Durango remains up in the air as Durango city councilors and La Plata County commissioners try to figure out long-term solutions.

The future of the homeless camp at Purple Cliffs did not get much clearer Wednesday after a joint meeting between Durango city councilors and La Plata County commissioners.

La Plata County commissioners in recent weeks have expressed support for shutting down the camp, which county officials say was supposed to be temporary as the city of Durango figured out a permanent location.

But city councilors have said it is going to take more time to identify a suitable location for a long-term homeless camp, and they’ve pleaded with county commissioners to keep Purple Cliffs open at least through the winter.

“Quite frankly, we haven’t found it,” said Assistant City Manager Kevin Hall. “I know there’s been a lot of frustration ... because it’s a difficult situation ... there are no great sites out there.”

The city and county came together Wednesday in an attempt to iron out many of the issues that have arisen in recent weeks, but the path forward remains unclear.

City councilors proposed keeping the portion of Purple Cliffs that’s located on county lands open, and even expanding the site to allow campers on adjacent property owned by the city.

And in the meantime, city councilors promised to come up with a long-term plan.

In recent weeks, city officials said it has become clear there is a need for two homeless camps: a highly managed one for those looking to transition out of homelessness, and another dispersed camping-type site for those who want to camp outside.

“We’re always going to need at least two different types of housing,” said Councilor Kim Baxter.

A previously proposed camp, which would be highly managed and accommodate up to 40 people, called “Elkview” is likely to be scrapped, city officials said, after public opposition mounted to it being adjacent to Greenmount Cemetery.

“We need to find the best location so it is supported by our community,” said Councilor Melissa Youssef. “(Elkview) is not supported.”

The city has apparently identified two new possible solutions for a managed camp: a vacant city-owned parcel in Bodo Industrial Park or a plan to use the existing Hilltop House community corrections building if the center moves into the vacant DeNier Youth Service Center.

“It seems there is a path forward,” Hall said. ”But it’s not within the expectations or parameters that we all anticipated when we went into this a year ago with Purple Cliffs.”

La Plata County in 2019 set up the camp at Purple Cliffs, just south of Durango on La Posta Road (County Road 213), which now has a fluctuating population of about 50 to 60 people.

But county commissioners say the site at Purple Cliffs is inadequate as a long-term camp: It is far from services such as Manna soup kitchen; it presents safety hazards along the county road; and its terrain is steep and dangerous, especially in winter.

Commissioner Julie Westendorff said requesting the county to keep Purple Cliffs open is yet another move by the city of Durango to shift responsibility onto the county.

“Frankly, I feel like I’m Charlie Brown, and the city’s been Lucy, and the football keeps getting pulled away and I keep ending up flat on my back,” Westendorff said.

Durango Mayor Dean Brookie said finding the right location for a homeless camp is a difficult challenge that’s taking more time than expected. But he argued it’s important to keep Purple Cliffs open, at least for now.

“The idea of closing Purple Cliffs is, unfortunately, not a good one for those folks living up there,” he said. “The idea we’re somehow being forced to make this decision because of the pending closure of the camp is inappropriate at best. We need to make a good joint decision for this population.”

On Tuesday, several campers at Purple Cliffs voiced support to city councilors for keeping Purple Cliffs open, adding it would be nearly impossible to get a new site up and running before the winter.

“We have an unhoused community here,” said Tim Sargent, a camp leader. “Many people start to feel that this truly is their home.”

The meeting concluded with a somewhat ambiguous plan.

City councilors said they will inform the county within the next week or so when the city can propose a definitive timeline for coming up with a long-term plan.

The hope, councilors said, would be to identify a location for a managed site, which would serve as a signal of good faith to county commissioners, who would in turn agree to keep Purple Cliffs open.

The situation may lead to the postponement of a Sept. 26 meeting in which commissioners were expected to take a vote on the future of Purple Cliffs.

“When we made the decision to go with Purple Cliffs last year, we did it lickety-split,” Commissioner Gwen Lachelt told city councilors. “I encourage you all to get in your lickety-split mode.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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