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People at Purple Cliffs grow frustrated with talk of closing campsite

Campers, government officials and experts favor managed camp
David Tarr, who is living at Purple Cliffs, a designated camp for people experiencing homelessness in Durango, talks with his wife, Christine, as he sits with their dog, Eddy, on Aug. 20. Tarr uses a walking stick and faces tripping hazards on the rocky ground and steep slopes at Purple Cliffs. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Christine and David Tarr turned to the camp at Purple Cliffs along La Posta Road in Durango when they lost stable housing in May. The camp has been a source of comfort ever since, they said.

“It’s comfortable. It’s a home for us right now – where we know we can lay our heads down and say, ‘Thank you God for a good day,’” Christine Tarr said.

But looming over the campers is a potential closure date for the 200-acre site: May 2022.

La Plata County established the designated camp in September 2019 as a temporary option for people experiencing homelessness. The city of Durango tried to find a different location until August, when the county took over the effort. The goal is to create a managed camp in a more suitable location, according to the county.

After more than a year of waiting to see if a new site will be found, some campers are increasingly frustrated with the uncertainty.

“After two years of the city and county going back and forth, we’re back at square one,” said Tim Sargent, who camps at Purple Cliffs and acts as a camp leader.

In early August, about 84 camps were sprawled on the steep hillside at Purple Cliffs, west of the Animas River near the Durango Walmart.

The campsite includes a makeshift kitchen, shower, hand-washing stations and other amenities built up over the years. It’s a centralized location where people can be connected to services offered by local groups, such as the Neighbors in Need Alliance.

“We’ve formed a community. We’ve tried really hard. I have people from (age) 3 to 70 here,” Sargent said. “Some, it’s the first time they’ve experienced homeless, and others have been doing it for decades. It’s not one-size-fits-all. There’s lots of variety up here. They just haven’t gotten to know us.”

Sargent said mental health services and a weekly religious service are available for campers.

“We have all of these structures, and they want to throw it away for a camp that doesn’t exist,” he said. “I don’t care where the damn camp is, but there needs to be one.”

The Purple Cliffs camp faces possible closure in 2022. La Plata County plans to find a more suitable location where people can access services. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The county says the Purple Cliffs campsite is not a suitable location because of issues with wastewater, and pedestrian and driver safety on the two-lane road with no shoulders. Trash, bear activity and wildfire risk also are issues.

Some issues could be mitigated, said County Commissioner Clyde Church. But improvements like widening the road or creating easier access points for trash service would cost “millions of taxpayer dollars,” he said.

Plus, the camp does not comply with state camping requirements and the county’s land-use code.

“It would be completely costly if not impossible to comply with the state’s campground codes up there,” Church said. He did not know exactly which codes were being broken.

Emergency responders cannot access areas of the camp, and natural gas seeps from the ground in a few places. Church said he did not know Friday what the air quality impact was on campers.

Some areas of the camp are difficult to access for emergency responders and campers with disabilities. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

In fall 2020, La Plata County commissioners said the campsite would close in May. When that deadline passed, they pushed it to May 2022.

Church said the county aims to stick to that closure date, but it could change. County staff members need to identify a new site and ensure it goes through the approval processes such as the land-use process, which includes opportunities for public comment.

“We’re not limiting ourselves to just county property. We’re looking at other properties that could be donated or acquired,” Church said.

But with the possible closure looming, it’s harder to persuade people to take care of the site, Sargent said.

“Screw the ‘We’re leaving in May’ thing,” Sargent said. “Until we can find another suitable campsite, let the Purple Cliffs stay in place. That would take some of the pressure off of people.”

David Tarr has lived at Purple Cliffs with his partner, Christine Tarr, since May. They hope to find an apartment soon. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

If the county does close the encampment, the city and county should help people move to a new site, Christine Tarr said.

In the meantime, David Tarr, who has epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease, hopes for improvements at Purple Cliffs that would remove safety hazards for people with disabilities.

Christine Tarr also hopes drivers will stop yelling at or insulting campers.

“Be kind with what comes out of ur (sic) mouth,” she said in a text message to The Durango Herald.

Exploring a new site

Unlike the low-barrier Purple Cliffs site, a new camp would be managed, with a limited number of spaces and on-site support such as a camp manager, security features and access to services. County officials have referred to Camp Hope in Las Cruces, New Mexico, as a possible model.

The managed camp strategy has the support of Sargent and Kathleen Van Voorhis, director of community strategy with the affordable housing group Project Moxie.

Camp Hope, one of the services at the Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, focuses on a housing-first model that prioritizes connecting people with safe, affordable and stable housing.

Other essential services are available at the self-governing, transitional living community made up of tents sheltered inside three-sided structures with showers and cooking facilities.

The camp is limited to a capacity of 50 people. It would not serve the summer population at Purple Cliffs, but it’s the recommended capacity, Van Voorhis said. People move out of the camp to stable housing and open up new spaces.

Sargent said campers are looking for something similar: a managed camp with minimal barriers, security, simple rules and basic amenities.

“We need a space that can accommodate 100 people,” he said. “Fifty wouldn’t solve the problem, but it’s a great start. We can negotiate.”

About 85 people camped at Purple Cliffs this summer. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

In the meantime, La Plata County should be ready for an increasing population of people who are experiencing insecure housing or who might fall into homelessness, Van Voorhis said.

“I think the biggest thing the county and the community need to understand is we’re seeing an exponential increase in the amount of first-time homelessness over the last two years,” she said.

“I think this needs to stop being an us-and-them thing,” Van Voorhis said. “The county needs to realize, whether you’re housed or unhoused, we’re all neighbors.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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