By late afternoon Wednesday, the homeless camp just west of Durango had mostly been vacated, save for a few stragglers picking up their belongings. But across the landscape, heaps and heaps of trash remained.
“There’s trash everywhere,” said La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith. “We’re going to need help.”
The piñon-juniper forests that blanket the hillsides near the Tech Center have accommodated homeless campers for decades.
While camping in the area – which crosses lands owned by the city of Durango, La Plata County and the Bureau of Land Management – has long been prohibited, local authorities historically chose to passively enforce the ban, preferring to work with the community on the outskirts of town.
But increasing concern about fire danger, trash and impacts to nearby neighborhoods put heightened scrutiny on the camp in recent years and culminated with the Sheriff’s Office announcement last week that it would shut down the camp and reopen an alternative 200-acre site farther south of Durango.
Smith said he met several times with the homeless community in the past week to discuss the coming changes, so it would be no surprise when seven deputies arrived about 10 a.m. Wednesday and offered rides and trailers to move campers to the new site near the Purple Cliffs south of downtown Durango.
Smith said there was a strong sense of cooperation between deputies and the approximately 45 people living in the camp. The few stragglers late Wednesday also noted the respect shown throughout the day.
Their trash, however, presents a problem.
Chris Burke, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, said the garbage heaps are especially disconcerting because the camp was cleaned last year.
Scattered around hillsides is common camping equipment – tarps, tents and chairs. Mixed in are random items, such as wall clocks, furniture, bike parts, cigarettes, shoes and other clothing. Human waste, Burke said, is typically found left in buckets or in a dug-out hole with a tarp on top.
Smith said it will take a community cleanup day, yet to be scheduled, to handle the mess; his department simply doesn’t have the resources. In turn, the sheriff promised to patrol the area to make sure campers don’t come back.
“This won’t ever be the place to camp again,” Smith said.
Nora Scott grew up in Durango, has a job in town, and since November, has lived at the camp near the Tech Center. She said she’s trying to keep a positive attitude about the new site near the Purple Cliffs – she’s heard good and bad things from people who have made the move.
Scott also hopes campers take lessons learned from their old stomping grounds – namely, to be more responsible with garbage and waste.
“A lot of people know to carry out their trash, but we don’t have control over other people,” she said. “Even we hate it. And just because we’re leaving, doesn’t mean it’s the end of this.”
Smith hopes that trash bins and portable toilets are added at the new camp, but the funding is up in the air.
Tim Sargent said a type of camper he calls a “trash monkey” leaves trash at a campsite until the mess becomes too much for them to bear. Then, they find a new site, and the trash pile starts up all over again.
“I don’t want to live in another trash bin, and I want stricter enforcement,” he said. “I think we need to set stronger principles and expectations up front.”
Where that responsibility will fall is another unknown. Smith said his department doesn’t have the capacity to manage a homeless camp, a sentiment reiterated by county and city officials. In recent weeks, local nonprofits have been seen as a possible solution.
Donna Mae Baukat with Community Compassion Outreach said campers themselves should hold the brunt of responsibility for their conduct.
“If you don’t have self-governing, the camp can get chaotic,” she said.
And as for services such as trash, portable toilets and transportation, it’ll likely take a community effort, Baukat said.
“But it’s such a new situation that we are just now trying to address it,” she said.
Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County, said any solution to the homeless issue would require partnerships.
“The county has been committed and dedicated to working with partners to find potential solutions that both serve the homeless population and the community,” she said. “And we’ll continue to do so.”
It’s a fresh start for homeless campers at the Purple Cliffs, but they do have concerns.
Manna soup kitchen used to be just a short walk away. Downtown was within eyesight. And other services were not far out of reach.
Ty Delancy, who had lived at the Tech Center camp for just over a month, said he’s going to try out the Purple Cliffs. He typically likes to camp off on his own, but that’s increasingly hard around Durango, he said.
“I like to disassociate myself from all the garbage, the worrying about stealing,” he said. “That just hasn’t been the case here.”
Scott worried about where campers will get their water or how she’ll get to work without a car. Sargent said he hopes the sense of community from people who live on the streets continues.
“I don’t think people in Durango realize there is a street community here who help each other out,” he said.
Ann Morse, director of Manna, said campers will need to settle in before they’re comfortable with the new site.
“Once those needs are brought up, we’ll see how to work together to meet them,” she said.
In the meantime, Smith said the site near the Tech Center will be patrolled frequently by deputies. Illegal campers will be told to move. If they don’t move, their belongings will be confiscated, which they’ll have 30 days to collect.
Authorities in La Plata County have decided it’s better to work with individuals to get them on the right side of the law, rather than issue citations that won’t be paid or make arrests that could crowd the jail. Neither action would address the cause of the problem.
But at the same time, camping at the Tech Center became too much of a danger, warranting a more robust response, Smith said. The site at the Purple Cliffs doesn’t have homes nearby, and there are more ways to reduce wildfire risk, which he said are all positives.
“The message is, ‘This is no longer the spot,’” Smith said. “Down there is.”