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Residents rally for unhoused at Buckley Park in Durango

Event held in conjunction with U.S. Supreme Court case to consider Eighth Amendment rights
About 70 residents gathered Wednesday in Buckley Park to rally against the criminalization of homelessness in light of a U.S. Supreme Court case that considers whether cities fining and arresting unhoused people for living outside rises to cruel and unusual punishment. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald)

For Durango and La Plata County, Purple Cliffs along La Posta Road was a convenient place to drop the unhoused.

Instead of camping in city parks or panhandling on downtown street corners, the homeless were left to fend for themselves on the hillside just south of city limits.

But some residents and government officials complained about the trash and fire hazards at Purple Cliffs. Meanwhile, people who lived there before it closed in October 2022 are quick to point out it wasn’t just the homeless doing the dumping: Plenty of housed residents dropped off household goods, including king-size mattresses, they needed to discard.

When the unmanaged camp at Purple Cliffs closed about 1½ years ago, many unhoused residents had one question on their minds: “Where are we supposed to go?”

Unhoused and formerly unhoused residents asked the same question Wednesday at a rally in Buckley Park.

People gathered to share stories about their experiences with homelessness, to advocate for compassion and support for the unhoused, and to speak out against a U.S. Supreme Court case that could majorly impact how cities address homelessness nationwide.

The case is City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Gloria Johnson, and it could determine whether fining, arresting and jailing people for living outside when they have nowhere else to go is constitutional or if it rises to the level of cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court heard arguments this week and a decision is expected in June.

Durango defense attorney Brian Schowalter framed the case as a question of status versus conduct, and the city of Grants Pass argues homelessness is about the latter.

Schowalter

“It’s logic sort of run amok,” he said. “The scary part is it could go so far as to say, ‘Being homeless is clearly a choice, this is not cruel and unusual. You can just go to town on homeless people. Put them in jail. Do whatever you want.’”

Schowalter scoffed at the idea people choose to live outdoors in the middle of winter when temperatures are zero degrees. He said maybe a tiny portion of the population wants to live outdoors in harsh conditions, but really, “nobody wants to suffer that way.”

Kimberly, who declined to provide her last name, was among the speakers who shared her lived experience with homelessness.

“What I find scary about this court case is that you can be charged for your status and not for committing a criminal act,” said Kimberly, who serves on the Lived Experience Advisory Board, which is affiliated with the Community Investment Alliance, a nonprofit working on housing and food-access issues statewide.

She said she appreciates the Durango community and she feels a sense of community. She doesn’t have a house.

Kristie Boughan, an unhoused resident known to some as “the most ticketed individual sentenced in La Plata County,” is “the real MVP,” Kimberly said.

“Kristie knows the drill. DPD will show up, go write her a ticket and she’ll be on her way. They can’t take her to a shelter because she struggles with alcoholism. And they don’t feel it’s right to send her to jail because it’s a petty offense,” she said.

In January, Boughan was sentenced to 45 days in jail after accumulating dozens of citations, namely for trespassing, illegal camping and open alcohol containers. Her outstanding citations were dismissed in exchange.

Schowalter said the vast majority of trespassing citations issued by the city – 90% to 95% of citations he reviewed after filing a Colorado Open Records Request – were issued to homeless people camping around town.

“They’re not going to mess with you if you’re in a nice van, in a nice car,” he said. “... We all know that happens. They don’t care about that. They’re discriminating. That’s the equal protection clause under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

He said when the government singles out a group of people to harass, press charges against and “basically run out of town,” it’s violating the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

Schowalter invited unhoused residents to bring him their citations for illegal camping and pledged to help fight the city in court pro bono, or free of charge.

He recently helped one resident get their charges dismissed in municipal court. He said he was confident he would win. But he needs more cases to fight the city because a dismissal stops a case from gaining more traction and possibly from making a bigger difference for others.

“That’s my frustration. I don’t have an answer to that. But I will tell you, if you give me your ticket and we go to court, I can probably get it dismissed. I can’t make a blanket promise in all circumstances, but I think the city knows that they’re violating the protection clause and it’s also cruel and unusual,” he said.

Abby, another member of the Lived Experience Advisory Board, introduced herself by her first name only. She said she lived at Purple Cliffs for a time, and what she saw was a gathering place for people who had nowhere else to go.

“Everyone took care of each other and it was a place for people to be. I knew people who built houses, who had jobs. It was an amazing place and they tore it down. They had inmates from the jail tear it down, actually. And that broke a lot of hearts,” she said.

She said homelessness is a constant cycle of fines, jail time and probation, and the cycle is a lot harder to break than simply getting a job.

“It’s nearly impossible to get a job when you’re living out of a tent,” she said. “You probably don’t have a phone, probably don’t have an ID, can’t take a shower.”

Solutions to homelessness are difficult to suss out. It’s not a black and white issue and there are a lot of gray areas, she said. She doesn’t necessarily know how it should be addressed. But she knows how it shouldn’t.

“I’d like to see people not getting harassed and ticketed and sent to jail for existing,” she said.

cburney@durangoherald.com

An earlier version of this story erred in saying Brian Schowalter is a public defense lawyer. He is a private defense attorney in Durango. The error was made in editing.



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