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Heavy rains cause mudslides, disruptions among campers at Purple Cliffs

Nonprofit helps clean campsite as residents fret eventual closure of camp
Agape Durango member Diana Williams carries trash to a dumpster on La Posta Road (County Road 213) on Saturday at the Purple Cliffs homeless camp. Agape members volunteered to clean up trash at the camp after above-average rains. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Heavy rains have caused mudslides at Purple Cliffs homeless camp just south of Durango city limits, where dozens of campers are living on a mountainside.

The rains have also washed away residents’ trash and belongings, littering the landscape with bottles, cans, clothing and other debris.

Agape Durango, a nonprofit spiritual community, was on La Posta Road at the base of Purple Cliffs on Saturday morning to collect trash and mildewed bedding from the people living in tents and makeshift shelters.

Volunteers with Agape served meat and veggie burgers, hot dogs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit, and salads along with soda and water from a canopy tent on La Posta Road while other volunteers picked up trash.

Debris washed down from the Purple Cliffs homeless camp on Saturday along La Posta Road (County Road 213) after recent heavy rains. Volunteers from Agape Durango, a nonprofit spiritual community, helped clean up along La Posta Road and collect ruined items from camp residents Saturday. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Karen Lovelien with Agape Durango said every June the nonprofit participates in what it calls Sacred Service Saturday, and this year, the volunteers chose to assist the unhoused population at Purple Cliffs.

Members were stationed along La Posta Road (County Road 213) for the most part because they didn’t want to intrude on the residents’ personal space, but they asked people to bring down their trash or disposables that might have been ruined by the rain, Lovelien said.

“We’ve got garbage bags for them to take things up to their homes,” she said. “We don’t want to go up into their ‘private property.’ It’s just invasive.”

She said crew members began work at 9 a.m. and planned to be there until 3 p.m. Later in the day, they planned to take some of the children at the campsite to a nearby park for some playtime.

Diana Williams, another volunteer, said Purple Cliffs residents are “hurting” and “scared” because of the county’s recent decision to close the area to camping later this year.

Agape Durango nonprofit members, Mick Smith, left, and Fred Boshardt throw bags of trash into a dumpster that Craig Valkenaar, right, collected along La Posta Road (County Road 213) at the Purple Cliffs homeless camp on Saturday after recent heavy rains carried trash down the slopes of the camp. The members were volunteering their time to clean up trash at the camp. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“People are hurting and poor and struggling and scared now because in a few months they’re going to have nowhere to go,” she said.

She said there are 15 to 17 children in the camp at present, ranging in age from a newborn to those in their teenage years. She said some of the children have disabilities, although she did not elaborate.

She observed how La Posta Road running along the bottom of Purple Cliffs was caked in mud and said it was worse before crews had cleared it.

“If you can imagine living in an unstable place and then boulders washed down by the river of mud through your home with your kids – it’s scary,” she said. “But on top of that, some people became homeless with everything that they owned. And so all of their stuff out here is just getting drenched. And that’s why you see blankets out on the road and pillows.”

A car along La Posta Road (County Road 213) at the Purple Cliffs homeless camp on Saturday has debris piled around it that recent heavy rains washed down the slopes of the camp. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

La Plata County announced this month it plans to close Purple Cliffs in September.

The homeless camp causes concerns for local governments and the greater community because of littering as well as the potential fire hazard.

Several fires have been reported at Purple Cliffs that required the response of Durango Fire Protection District, and the causes were campfires at the site, fire officials said.

One Purple Cliffs resident, Antonio Espinoza, said the unhoused community needs more time to figure out what is next, and he would prefer it if they were given a chance to prove they can manage themselves.

“It’s absolutely a terrible idea (to close the campsite),” he said.

He said kicking homeless people out of Purple Cliffs won’t solve the problem of homelessness, but it will create “a hundred more problems.”

“This exists as a result of society’s inability to maintain perfect order,” he said. “And I’m not knocking it for it, but it just happens.”

About the recent rains and the resulting mudslides and trash disaster, Espinoza said some residents managed well while others did not.

“It’s really wishy-washy,” he said with a short laugh. “But it depends on how well you prepared. Unfortunately, we do not have any infrastructure or the allowance to build such infrastructure that would allow us to deal with that better.”

One unhoused resident of the Purple Cliffs homeless camp said on Saturday that the inability to build stronger structures causes problems with trash, personal property and debris being swept away during heavy rain storms. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

He said the inability to build stronger shelters creates “a huge problem” because trash washes down the slopes of Purple Cliffs. But also, the rains make already slippery walkways more difficult and endangers personal property and, potentially, life.

“It’s making a huge problem with the mess and the cleanup and obviously that’s an issue. We’re trying to get that cleaning because of a million compounding problems.”

Agape Durango volunteers, from left, Alli Wasley and son Elliot Wasley, 7, pick up trash Saturday along La Posta Road (County Road 213) at the Purple Cliffs homeless camp after recent heavy rains carried trash down the slopes of the camp. Agape members were volunteering their time to clean up trash at the camp. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Williams said there are people in Durango with good ideas about how to shelter the homeless population, and she said other communities outside Durango and La Plata County can serve as reference points for government officials as they sort out their plans for the unhoused.

“We can find those solutions,” she said. “And I have all the highest hopes that the city and the county are going to do that or are trying to do that, or are on their way to do that. I think that the people at Purple Cliffs are really afraid of what happens in the fall when this place closes.”

She pointed to high rent costs and the disparity of wealth between the city and the unhoused community at Purple Cliffs.

“People up here are largely hurting people who’ve had hard lives and want to do the best for themselves and their families,” she said.

cburney@durangoherald.com

Elliot Wasley, 7, a volunteer with Agape Durango, picked out his shirt for the cleanup day on Saturday at the Purple Cliffs homeless camp along La Posta Road (County Road 213). The nonprofit’s members were volunteering to clean up trash at the camp. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Debris washed down from the Purple Cliffs homeless camp along La Posta Road (County Road 213) after recent heavy rains. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Steven Wasley, a volunteer working with Agape Durango, carries trash down to a dumpster on La Posta Road (County Road 213) on Saturday at the Purple Cliffs homeless camp. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Alli Wasley, a volunteer working with Agape Durango, picks up trash along La Posta Road (County Road 213) on Saturday at the Purple Cliffs homeless camp. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Craig Valkenaar, who is volunteering with Agape Durango, throws a tent he picked up into a dumpster Saturday along La Posta Road (County Road 213) at the Purple Cliffs homeless camp after recent heavy rains carried trash down the slopes of the camp. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
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