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Sheriff’s Office evicts dozens of homeless residents west of Durango

Law enforcement cites trash as reason for ouster

About 40 homeless people camping west of Durango were told Wednesday by the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office they have 48 hours to move.

Deputies “tagged” camps and informed campers of the eviction on the eastern slopes of Hogsback, a popular hiking area and ridgeline just west of city limits. The Sheriff’s Office plans to return to the slopes Friday to reassess the situation and try to assist as many people as possible, said spokesman Chris Burke.

Exactly what will happen then is unclear, he said.

The sweep was prompted by area residents who reported trash and nuisance foot traffic in the area, Burke said.

“Some of the homeowners are at wits’ end,” he said.

Campsites speckled the eastern slope of Hogsback on Wednesday afternoon, many strewn with garbage. The Sheriff’s Office cleaned up the area about a month ago, Burke said, but since then, the area has been trashed.

An abandoned illegal campsite behind the Durango Tech Center on Wednesday. The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office visited campsites Wednesday west of Durango city limits to notify homeless campers that they have 48 hours to vacate.

The city put a dumpster in the area for people to toss litter, but the only people who seemed to use it were sheriff’s deputies when they did cleanup efforts, Burke said.

The Sheriff’s Office previously allowed camping west of city limits. But the camp was closed after the city of Durango announced it would open its own camp for homeless residents. But the city reneged on the offer, leaving homeless people without a place to camp.

Sheriff Sean Smith said he is working with other agencies to find somewhere else for people without homes to sleep.

The 9th Judicial Circuit Court in Boise, Idaho, ruled earlier this year that making it illegal for someone to sleep on public property when they have nowhere else to go is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

Tom Cowing with La Plata County Sheriff’s Office talks with someone who was camping west of Durango city limits. Sheriff’s Office deputies visited campsites Wednesday to notify homeless campers that they have 48 hours to vacate.

The city of Durango acquiesced to the 9th Circuit Court decision in October when it dismissed trespassing charges against eight people without homes. The American Civil Liberties Union has also sent at least one pointed letter to the city urging the city to stop enforcing its camping ban.

The city issued a moratorium in October saying it would not enforce its camping ban between the hours of sunset and sunrise on public open space, excluding sidewalks and parks. Smith said the moratorium gives people a place to sleep, therefore meeting the legal threshold required by the 9th Circuit Court decision.

But Mark Silverstein, legal director with the ACLU, said Wednesday’s eviction is the latest example of local officials bouncing homeless people around, something that has been happening for months. Silverstein said the city’s requirement that campers take down their tents during the day creates undue difficulty for people with disabilities and interferes with people insulating their tents for the cold nights.

Travis Phelps packs up his tent, sleeping bags and personal belongings to move to a new location Wednesday afternoon. “I already know where I’m going to move to, so it’s no big deal relocating,” Phelps said.

“The city and the county need to get together and figure out something where people can have non-temporary housing. That might mean tents if you can leave them up during the day,” Silverstein said. “The two governments can’t keep bouncing people around from place to place when people have nowhere to go.”

A man without a home who declined to be identified Wednesday on the eastern slope of Hogsback said he has been camping on and off in that location for about three years.

“At the end of the day, people think this land belongs to them more than it belongs to me,” he said. “This just made it where I gotta figure something out; I’m gonna figure this out.”

bhauff@durangoherald.com

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