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Our View: Purple Cliffs trash a tipping point

Letter writers have not held back feelings about the 1,000 cubic yards of trash left behind at Purple Cliffs and the sticker shock of $374,241 for its cleanup. That scale of debris, hauled up over four years, from La Posta Road to the top of the rise, will tear at your heart. A visual hangover from years of this unmanaged, untenable camp.

Readers continually ask, why wasn’t the trash picked up? Much of it actually was. La Plata County provided a dumpster. Many residents at Purple Cliffs disposed of their trash. It didn’t help that an errant sofa – not from a person dealing with homelessness – and other large items were illegally dumped there. Some residents there joined volunteer cleanup efforts, too. Local volunteers with expansive hearts picked up what they could, enduring biohazardous risks. Deputies rounded up shopping carts.

Still, it was more trash than many hands on deck could manage, the project too large and dangerous. Four years worth.

Seeing that trash, visible from Camino del Rio, could be the push we need to prioritize affordable housing in the radical way we haven’t before.

Otherwise, we’ll stay in the perpetual loop of misunderstanding and nonaction. Why didn’t Purple Cliffs’ residents take out their trash? When a first need is survival, taking out the trash falls behind. Scrambling down a hillside in the dark to a portable toilet not happening. Now, former Purple Cliffs’ residents have found their way onto public and private land. With frost covering tents, people will stay bundled up with the sole focus of staying alive. Trash isn’t likely a consideration.

The county and city of Durango will split the cost of the cleanup because the spillover of camps and trash littered adjacent city property, too. The county is emphatic, saying primitive, unmanaged camps will no longer be allowed. We won’t see the likes of Purple Cliffs again. But we can still learn from this situation.

That trash and its price tag is like a flashing neon sign. Need affordable housing now.

A study by Root Policy, a Denver consulting firm, showed that Southwest Colorado is short 2,500 housing units. Professional people are voting with their feet, leaving the area. Students are sleeping in cars, as retirees and people who can afford not to work discover this area.

Enough already.

Homelessness is complicated. We’re not making excuses. People landed at Purple Cliffs for many reasons. About 25% of them held down local jobs. The school bus picked up children. The reality in the Southwest, though, is even more people are an injury or a paycheck away from being in the same situation.

Maybe Purple Cliffs is our tipping point.

Meanwhile, the city and councilors are putting their heads together on affordable housing. The county has close to $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds at the ready if a solution comes forward.

We have a caring community, too. Community Compassion Outreach, a Durango-area nonprofit, is partnering with Durango Christian Church at 255 East 11th St. to provide a warming shelter twice weekly with meals, hot drinks and phone charging. The nonprofit’s peer coaches will talk with clients about their struggles and how to improve relationships. This continuum of care and upstream approach can’t be underestimated. They give us hope that thoughtful steps are being taken.

And, already, 166 cubic yards of trash – six dumpsters worth – have been collected at Purple Cliffs.

We’re on our way. We can do this. It takes a major change in mindset. For all of us.