In the shade of late Monday afternoon, a handful of Purple Cliff residents scampered along the well-trod trails winding through the camp’s junipers and pines to collect the last of their possessions. Some were still unsure where they would spend the night.
A team of 16 La Plata County Sheriff Office’s deputies arrived at the site just after 8 a.m. Monday to enforce the county’s eviction order, which deputies posted Friday, notifying the camp’s 40 residents that they had 72 hours to vacate the premises.
For most of the remaining campers, a storage location for their belongings was as difficult to find as a place to stay. Deputies, trustee inmates from the county jail and volunteers from local advocacy groups helped to move the belongings of those who did have a storage location.
Some residents expressed anger at the county for enforcing the eviction in the first place, but most agreed that the day had gone as smoothly as it could have.
“We’ve got an understanding,” resident Roy Melead said of himself and law enforcement. “I don’t want no trouble and neither do they, so I’m trying to cooperate with them.”
Melead, a veteran who lived at the encampment for a year, planned to spend Monday night and then leave Tuesday. The Veterans of Foreign Wars paid for Melead’s storage and deputies brought in a trailer to help with his move.
La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said the goal was to move everyone by Monday, but acknowledged there would be a few stragglers left to help move Tuesday.
“There have been some challenges, but for the most part, we've had almost no conflict, people have been great,” Smith said. “Campers worked with us very well, and we’re making good progress.”
Forty campers remained on the hillside Friday, but that number was down to four by Monday, Smith said as he supervised efforts to remove a tent-trailer nestled in the trees.
Richard Dilworth, a volunteer with the Neighbors in Need Alliance, helped the camp’s residents pack their belongings and ease tensions between residents and law enforcement.
“The sheriff’s approach was absolutely amazing,” Dilworth said. “He told (his deputies) to use trauma-informed care.”
Trauma-informed care included helping the camp’s residents create a plan for where they would stay, where they could store their belongings, and assisting families in finding hotel rooms.
Susan McKiney, who is moving to a hotel after living at Purple Cliffs since July, echoed Dillworth’s sentiment.
“The officers, they’ve been trained properly, I think,” McKiney said. “They’ve been very kind – they haven’t messed with our things, they haven’t been grouchy with us. Whoever trained them for today did a very good job. Everybody’s been very polite.”
Still, McKiney says she is heartbroken about the move. And she says it has been even worse for people who have lived there for years.
While the Sheriff's Office’s handling of the move was appreciated, residents and volunteers pointed toward the need for a long-term solution.
“We need a designated, managed camp as well as a designated overflow camp,” Dilworth said during a break from helping campers pack.
Sheriff Smith agreed.
“No one is happy about the situation, telling people they can’t be here, but not being able to offer them a suitable alternative,” he said.
The Durango City Council and the La Plata County commissioners have been working to find a solution before winter, but it hasn’t happened. Smith points to Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, as a possible model moving forward.
The two-decade old Village, located on city-owned property near the Portland airport, is recognized as a legal encampment. It has crude but functional cooking, social, electric and sanitary facilities, and is incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with bylaws, a board of directors, and an elected chairman and corporate officers. Designated by the Portland City Council as a transitional housing campground, Dignity Village falls under specific building codes governing campgrounds, which provides a legal zoning status. Lack of building codes has shut down other encampments.
Once the last of the people are moved from Purple Cliffs, the Sheriff’s Office will collect any personal property left behind and move it into storage. Clear View Cleanup of Durango, which has worked with the city’s environmental assessment team in the past, will then assess the amount of leftover trash and discarded belongings and make a bid to the county commissioners for its removal. Three 40-yard dumpsters have already been filled and removed by the county.
County authorities say that La Posta Road (County Road 213) will remain closed from the intersection with River Road and the gun range through Wednesday to facilitate the safe clearing of the camp. The road is expected to reopen by the end of the day Wednesday.
Smith said he was grateful to everyone involved in helping with a difficult situation. He particularly mentioned Project Moxi, Mana soup kitchen, Neighbors in Need Alliance and Access Health Care Systems.
“Everybody worked in concert to really pull off a good operation that tried to address people's traumas and concerns as we did this, but also accomplish what we needed to do,” he said. “We are trying to show compassion and respect, and the campers in turn were working with us.”