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Trashed open space straining city resources

Durango park rangers spending ‘fair amount of time’ picking up garbage
Garbage is piling up in open spaces around Durango, forcing park rangers to spend more than half their time cleaning. This photo was taken in Overend Mountain Park, west of downtown Durango.

The city of Durango is expending “significant resources” to clean up trash from open spaces around Durango, according to city officials.

Park Ranger Richard Guggenheim, who said he was speaking on his own behalf as a private resident, spent three of his five days last week carrying garbage out of remote areas around the city. City crews filled three dump trucks with rubbish collected in open spaces, he said.

Durango Parks and Recreation Department Director Cathy Metz said park rangers “are spending a fair amount of time” cleaning a particularly trashed area near Overend Mountain Park. Other places around Durango where Parks and Recreation employees find trash include behind the Tech Center, behind Walmart and at Schneider Park, Guggenheim said.

At least two rangers patrol trails in open spaces each day of the week, Metz said.

“If someone is sleeping, they can’t leave anything behind,” Metz said. “They can’t leave any trash. We don’t want to put a receptacle there because they have to take it (the trash out).”

Trashed trails

The problem is homeless residents don’t have a convenient place to take their garbage, said Donna Mae Baukat, director of Community Compassion Outreach, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people survive and exit homelessness. And summer newcomers may not have the same respect for the land as people who live homeless year-round in Durango, Baukat said.

“They respect the woods,” Baukat said. “They’re not doing it out of spite. They’re doing it because it’s inconvenient.”

The nonprofit has been working to organize a group of volunteers and homeless residents to clean the trashed open space, Baukat said. She said putting trash receptacles near open spaces where people sleep could help solve the problem of trash in the woods, as could handing out trash bags needed to collect rubbish.

Even that may not work, Guggenheim said. He has given rolls of garbage bags to people who he sees trashing different areas around town, but some still leave garbage behind.

“(Residents) don’t see the handful who are out cleaning; they see the trash on the ground,” Guggenheim said.

He’d much rather help people find the best route on a trail, tell people to keep their dogs leashed or remind them to pack out everything they pack in, he said. Instead, Guggenheim and other Parks and Recreation staff are spending time picking up clothes, food scraps, human waste, tents, sleeping bags and, sometimes, even hypodermic needles.

“When I’m telling you it’s trashed – everything you do in your house, these people are doing where they live also,” he said. “It’s all being hauled out (by city employees).”

Looking forward

People are allowed to sleep in open spaces, but there are restrictions, said City Attorney Dirk Nelson. The city previously banned camping in public spaces but issued a moratorium in September after the 10th Judicial Circuit Court found it unconstitutional to criminalize sleeping on public property when people have nowhere else to go. The police department no longer issues citations to people who “shelter” overnight in public open spaces, excluding parks and sidewalks, Nelson said.

An ordinance passed by City Council this year outlawed “camping” and permitted “sheltering” on city-owned property. According to the city, sheltering is “temporary overnight sleeping” from one hour before sunset to one hour after sunrise, “with or without the use of cover.” The city defines camping as “temporary use or occupancy of a location for the purposes of a living accommodation,” according to its ordinance.

Put simply, people must pack up their property after spending the night, even if they plan to sleep there the next night, Nelson said. If someone does leave his or her gear in city-owned or city-managed property, a code enforcement officer may leave a notice on the personal effects that, if not addressed within in 24 hours, could result in city employees throwing them away, Metz said.

Guggenheim said he once threw away everything he found in a camp only to learn afterward from a woman that he’d thrown out her birth certificate. Baukat said she has talked with at least four people who have had their property tossed by city employees.

September’s ordinance also gave the City Manager’s Office the authority to designate locations as suitable areas for sheltering. The City Manager’s Office has yet to use its authority to identify any such location, Nelson said.

Assistant City Manager Kevin Hall said the office has considered designating a place for people to sleep, but doing so comes with its own set of challenges. First, there is finding a location, then there is finding someone to manage it, both of which can cost a lot.

The city has been working with Volunteers of America to build a permanent supportive housing facility, and consultants are looking at solutions to homelessness in Durango, but until those solutions come to fruition, the city plans to “continue to do what we’re doing, using significant resources to clean up trash,” Hall said.

The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office helped manage county-owned property designated for homeless residents last year and found people were less likely to leave trash if they had access to a dumpster. Sheriff Sean Smith said he paid to have a dumpster at the site.

While the campsite didn’t attract every homeless resident in La Plata County, it did result in cleaner conduct from those who lived there, he said. But rules changed and the Sheriff’s Office no longer designates a camp for homeless residents.

People are still complaining about trash in open spaces, and Smith said he’s waiting on direction from La Plata County commissioners about how to address the issue of garbage in open spaces. He knows one thing, however – managed solutions work, he said Tuesday. County commissioners and city councilors hired a consulting group to look at long- and short-term solutions, but that work just started, Smith said.

The county camp west of downtown Durango closed at the start of the 416 Fire, and City Council abandoned plans to open another camp. What is happening now is not working to address issues of persistent, abundant and dispersed garbage, Smith said. He said the camp achieved compliance and resulted in a cleaner outdoor living space.

Hall said that although designating a small area for people to live could help with trash, it’s not the solution. A temporary camp overseen by the city last summer near Greenmount Cemetery caused a lot of trouble for law enforcement, Hall said. The best way to address the issue, at its root, is to provide services for people who need help, something that’s not being done now, he said.

“Even the spot at the cemetery was completely trashed,” Hall said. “There’s no simple solutions.”

bhauff@durangoherald.com

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