JoVonna Miller, a fourth-year student at Fort Lewis College, never envisioned herself living at Purple Cliffs. But for three weeks this summer, it was the only place she and her 13-year-old daughter had to call home.
“We ran out of friends and hotels,” JoVonna explained in mid-August. “I felt bad because no mother should have to put their child there.”
Life at Purple Cliffs wasn’t easy for JoVonna, who grew up on the Navajo Nation to a backdrop of substance abuse and domestic violence. On the first night, she and her daughter dug a plot and pitched their tent. For the first few days, they felt safe. But by the fourth night, things took a turn for the worse. “I can only describe it as hell’s world,” JoVonna explained.
JoVonna’s tent was adjacent to a main walkway and one morning around 2 a.m., a couple began arguing. Half-asleep, she got out of bed to comfort her daughter.
“Sweetie, I think my parents are arguing,” JoVonna recalled saying. “It brought me back to my childhood. I grew up around violence. So, I stayed up until 5 in the morning, praying and meditating, then I got my daughter ready, and she rode the bus to school.”
Today, JoVonna and her daughter are back on their feet and living in a home with the support of Section 8. Still, their story reflects a growing affliction in America: inadequate housing.
In 2020, 580,466 people in the U.S. were without a home. That rate dropped amid the pandemic, as government programming and moratoriums on evictions held the situation at bay. But in 2021, homeless shelters across the nation have reported significant spikes in people seeking assistance. While it is tempting to explain away homelessness and poverty through anecdotes of personal failures, the truth is far more complex.
According to authors Gregg Colburn and Clayton Aldern, many factors contribute to homelessness, including drug use, inclement weather, poverty and mental illness. But nothing explains the situation better than housing.
In their 2022 book, “Homelessness is a Housing Problem,” Colburn and Aldern argue that varying rates of homelessness are best explained by the cost and availability of housing. Other factors – such as mental health – compound the issue, but lack of affordable housing is the main culprit of homelessness in America.
And the situation stands to get much worse. Persistent homelessness trends with inequality, and today, the U.S. is among the most unequal nations in the world. Over the last 40 years, inequality in the U.S. has returned to the extreme levels that preceded the Great Depression. The situation is particularly dire for minorities, like JoVonna, who have borne the brunt of historic oppression in the U.S., and thus, are far less likely to have friends and family who are financially stable enough to come to the rescue. In the years to come, if we don’t reverse our inequality trends at the national level, communities like Purple Cliffs will continue to pop up around the country. It’s simply inevitable.
In this sense, closing Purple Cliffs in September won’t solve the issue, because homelessness is not an anomaly in the U.S., it’s inherent to who we have become as a nation. And reducing it will require a heavy dose of national reflection, and firm commitments in communities like Durango to investing in safety nets for the most vulnerable members of our community. The solution to Purple Cliffs isn’t displacement, it’s more housing.
Ben Waddell is an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College and serves on the board of Compañeros, a Durango-based immigration rights nonprofit.