The crisis of people who have no safe place to sleep each night is not a city of Durango or La Plata County problem alone.
It affects all of us and is requiring a collective effort to effect lasting change. Solving homelessness is not a realistic goal, but responsible and effective camp management can lessen the negative impacts locally for both the unhoused population and the greater community at large. This is the current aim of the La Plata County commissioners and is the reason we’re closing Purple Cliffs at the soonest possible date and instead instituting a much more sustainable managed camp.
Purple Cliffs is untenable, unplanned and potentially dangerous. It was selected as a temporary location in 2018 because campers formerly living near the Durango Tech Center were evacuated during the 416 Fire and going back to the former site was unacceptable for many reasons.
The point of starting a managed camp is just that: It’s managed. First, a managed camp model has assigned camping spots and uniform structures. It has a manager to develop and enforce rules for campers involved. Trash, sanitation and wildfire are managed to reduce risks.
Importantly, a managed camp will be sited in a location safer than Purple Cliffs, which is adjacent to La Posta Road with no parking spaces, shoulders or sidewalks. Purple Cliffs is also unsafe because of methane that naturally seeps from the hillside and puts adjacent campers at risk for a fire in enclosed spaces. A managed camp will also help link people to services, including Manna’s new navigation enter and the long-awaited Housing Solutions’ Espero permanent supportive housing apartments. We also have to help people get connected to mental health and health care, and for those who can work, to services for gainful employment.
As with all property owners, the county is required to follow state laws that guide camping in all forms. Compliance with the Code of Colorado Regulations regarding fires, sewer and sanitation (6-CCR 1010-9) at Purple Cliffs is a challenge as is compliance with the county’s own Land Use Code. Regulations pertaining to sanitation, water, access, siting and trash removal are to the benefit of all members of the public and should be observed by all. As to siting at Purple Cliffs, the public has not had a chance to weigh in as is customary for land use projects and an important part of any public decision-making process.
While this situation is double-black-diamond challenging, I think there is reason for optimism. The city of Durango is working on the purchase of a former hotel for transitive and workforce housing. The PATH Strategic Plan on Homelessness passed in 2020 by the city and county continues to be implemented and a recent success is Manna’s navigation center and a permanent coordinating council is in place. The county has American Rescue Plan Act funds and it is the board’s goal to direct a portion to housing.
Working together, we can institute a managed camp model that will meet the interests of our community in a much better way than Purple Cliffs does. Being unhoused in our community is not a crime, but it does not mean campers can do whatever they want. We will do everything possible to start this new managed camp in a way that keeps lines of communication open with those who are at Purple Cliffs. And, another reason for hope is Camp Hope in Las Cruces, New mexico. You can learn more about their model at http://www.mvcommunityofhope.org/camp-hope-2/ and with enough support, partnership and will, we can institute a similar program here.
Marsha Porter-Norton is the chairwoman of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners.