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Purple Cliffs homeless camp to remain open, for now

La Plata County commissioners blast city of Durango for lack of leadership
It appears the homeless camp at Purple Cliffs will remain open throughout the winter, while a permanent site for homeless campers is being sought.

The Purple Cliffs homeless camp will remain open, for now, but La Plata County commissioners Tuesday continued to rail against Durango city councilors for not securing a permanent location for homeless campers.

“I have zero confidence the city will propose a new location,” said Commissioner Gwen Lachelt. “I have not seen any leadership from the city on this issue or willingness to step up to the plate and be a partner with the county.”

In 2019, La Plata County set up a temporary homeless camp on La Posta Road (County Road 213) just south of Durango on the premise the city of Durango would work to find a long-term spot for a camp.

But the city of Durango has yet to find a location, and in recent weeks, La Plata County commissioners have floated the idea of closing the site at Purple Cliffs in an attempt to force the city’s hand.

It appeared Tuesday commissioners were going to have a majority vote to close the camp, with voiced support coming from commissioners Clyde Church and Julie Westendorff.

Westendorff reiterated concerns associated with Purple Cliffs, namely the rough terrain and safety issues with people walking along the county road. But she said she had “no confidence” in the city coming up with a solution.

“That makes me very sad,” she said. “I was one of the first subscribers to (a managed camp).”

Church, too, voiced many of the same concerns and frustrations. But right before the vote, Church said he did not want to close the camp and put unnecessary hardships on campers just a few weeks before winter.

“It tears my heart out to think about the stress we may be causing,” Church said. “I think it’s wrong (to close it down), but this is not the right site.”

Ultimately, Westendorff was the only vote in support of closing Purple Cliffs, with Church and Lachelt against it.

Lachelt said the county has “shouldered all of this burden” with the homeless camp, and that in five years, the city has taken “zero action” aside from a short-lived attempt at creating a shelter.

But Lachelt said she could not “in good conscience” shut down the camp so close to winter. She said even if the county did close Purple Cliffs, given the city’s history, it is unlikely the city would come up with a site.

“It’s time for the city to step up to the plate,” Lachelt said.

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith, who was in attendance, said he supported keeping Purple Cliffs temporarily open, calling it a life safety issue for campers. He added that if the site closes without an alternative, campers will likely disperse throughout the community.

Smith, too, voiced his exasperation with the city of Durango on the issue.

“I’m just as frustrated with the city of Durango’s lack of ability to take on this issue,” he said. “There are some elected officials at the city that have allowed staff to take control of this process and derail it. We need those elected officials to step up.”

Several campers from Purple Cliffs spoke in favor of keeping the location open during public comment Tuesday.

Richard Foisel, who camps at Purple Cliffs, said winter is always a difficult time to be homeless in Durango. Uprooting people would cause people to disperse camp, far away from services and transportation, he said.

Timothy Sargent, a camp leader at Purple Cliffs, said a community has formed at the location, where people work together to solve problems. He asked commissioners to hold off until warmer months if they are going to close it.

“The rational thing would be to hold off until July to make any permanent closure of this camp,” he said. “I think we’re on the right path, we don’t want to go backwards at this point.”

For now, there has been no direction to close Purple Cliffs, but the situation could thicken Thursday when a joint meeting is planned between county commissioners and city councilors.

After the vote, Westendorff, whose term is up in January along with Lachelt, had parting words for Church.

“I wish him the best at dealing with this issue for the indefinite future because I think we know what’s going to come up Thursday at our meeting – no location,” Westendorff said.

Said Lachelt: “I would love to be surprised.”

Calls to several city councilors, as well as Assistant City Manager Kevin Hall, were not returned Tuesday.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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