Nearly every year, homeless people die in Durango because they are homeless.
At Manna Soup Kitchen, during winter, there is a lot of fearful talk about freezing to death; in summer, the danger changes to bear attacks.
Yet in interviews, homeless people overwhelmingly said their social and legal vulnerabilities in Durango – where being perceived as homeless sometimes invites contempt from residents and unwanted attention from police – bothered them more than the prospect of a chilly death.
Many described hanging on by a thread.
“I try really hard to keep my appearance up because otherwise everybody just thinks you’re a dirty bum,” said Philippe LeFavre, who camps in the mountains. “When you let yourself go, they just want you to disappear.”
LeFavre, who graduated from Goddard College with a journalism degree, said he used to be “bourgeois” – for years, he was the editor of a newspaper in New Jersey. But while working as a pastry chef in Taos, New Mexico, he began recalling memories he had long repressed – memories of being abused by his mother, father and sister as a child.
The psychological fallout was so severe, “I just stopped being able to function,” he said.
He lost his job, then his home. He moved to Durango, and after a few years, he felt well enough to rejoin the workforce.
He said Fort Lewis College offered him a full-time job. The catch was that he needed a valid state-issued identification.
“The DMV refused because my New Mexico ID had lapsed. They said I had to go back to New York City to get a new birth certificate. How absurd. I had no money!” LeFavre said.
FLC withdrew the offer, according to LeFavre.
This experience – of lacking any meaningful legal identity in the face of a punitive government – characterizes some people’s experience of homelessness in Durango, where homeless people described being both invisible and hyper-visible to police.
Public defender Justin Bogan said homeless people are “vulnerable to all sorts of mistreatment” from people who have homes, business owners and police who erroneously perceive the population to be lawbreaking.
Though a 2011 study, “Criminalization of Homelessness,” by the National Law Center on Homelessness shows that, throughout the country, members of the homeless population are disproportionately targeted by police, Durango Police Department spokesman Lt. Ray Shupe said that is not the case in downtown Durango.
Durango residents, he acknowledged, may call police to complain about the behavior of people who appear to be homeless with disproportionate frequency.
In November 2014, the city ceased enforcing its loitering ordinance, which often targeted the homeless, after the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado argued it was unconstitutional.
The ACLU’s objections led Durango city councilors to revise its laws on panhandling in June prohibiting aggressive panhandling and banning anyone from lingering on certain busy medians.
City of Durango spokeswoman Sherri Dugdale said statistics are not kept on how many homeless people have been issued citations because police don’t ask people whether “they’re millionaires or broke” when they write tickets.
But there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that the police do issue tickets for violations of law that are sometimes associated with homelessness: Aside from traffic violations, in 2014 police wrote the most tickets for trespassing (222 citations) and publicly consuming alcohol (192).
City attorney Bill Corwin said he sees homeless defendants in municipal court “constantly, all the time. It’s a serious problem.”
Meanwhile, some worry that police pay too little attention to the crimes that victimize homeless people.
“We hear about it a lot – homeless-on-homeless crime. There are no exact statistics, but it’s very much its own subculture,” said Joseph Prekup, culinary manager at Manna Soup Kitchen. “If the same number of serious physical assaults, sexual assaults, fights and robberies happened on Third Avenue, it would be front-page every day. That happens all the time here with this population, and no one here ever seems to care.”
Not all serious violence has gone unreported. In 2008, Robert Ramsey murdered another homeless man, William Querner, in Horse Gulch.
“If you don’t have a safe space to be, it’s a dangerous life,” said 6th Judicial District Attorney Todd Risberg. “People with mental-health or addiction issues are less capable of caring for themselves, and that makes them good crime victims.”
Gordon South, who runs Axis Health Care’s homeless program, said too often, homeless people do not get help with mental-health issues or substance abuse until they have been arrested. The lack of an inpatient treatment facility means that homeless people often go from the emergency room to Detox.
At Manna Soup Kitchen, one couple characterized the legal system as a major agent in their journey into homelessness.
Danyel Wilmer had a job as a housekeeper, a house and a family; then her husband left her. Around the time her life was falling apart, she began to date a man who became her husband, Corbin Wilmer, formerly a maintenance worker.
“We got a domestic-violence charge. We get out of jail. We’re homeless,” Danyel said.
They have been spiraling since.
“I was put in jail to get off bath salts. But there’s no help to get you off anything,” she said.
Danyel said they had rarely been able to seek shelter at the Community Shelter, which, as a rule, rejects anyone under the influence of drugs or alcohol and people with felony convictions.
“The sad thing is, we grew up in Durango. All in all, if you slip at all, on paper it’s like – you’re done. You’re homeless because it’s so hard to make it,” Corbin said.
As of early June, they are staying at the Four Winds motel on U.S. Highway 160 where a room costs $750 a month.
But it’s not affordable; within weeks, the couple expects to be homeless again.
They’re trying, desperately, to stay afloat. Danyel just kicked a meth habit. The couple is considering moving away from Durango “to stay away from the bad element.”
But they have no jobs, no money.
And a few weeks ago, they were robbed by a roommate.
They didn’t call police.
In this series
Sunday: Who are the homeless and how did they arrive there? Three misconceptions about homelessness.
Monday: The problem with homeless camping, and if not outside, where?
Today: The homeless are vulnerable to weather, wildlife and one another. Children and young adults can find themselves without a roof.
Wednesday: Solutions to homelessness: Give them a place to live.