Residents on the west side of Durango have reported numerous instances of suspicious behavior, disturbances and trespassing to police as the number of intoxicated people traveling to homeless camps by way of Ella Vita Court increased in recent years.
While the drama associated with the homeless camping on the west side of town was playing out in government meetings and the news, it happened in real time on Ella Vita Court, a cul-de-sac near Manna, Durango’s soup kitchen.
The start of the 416 Fire and the closure of an organized camp for homeless residents west of downtown Durango dramatically reduced problems on their street, Ella Vita residents said.
“We got our quiet, safe neighborhood back to how it was before the camp was established,” said Liana Smith, an Ella Vita Court resident.
But residents say they are interested in a longer-term solution that would end dispersed camping, address fire danger associated with campers and give those truly in need a safe place to go. The city of Durango and La Plata County need to help solve the problem, Smith said.
“I am hoping that they can actually provide a solution that works,” she said.
The camp that Ella Vita residents say caused years of problems was set up by the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office in 2015 after a homeless teenager was attacked by a bear. It was meant to encourage homeless residents to keep their camps clean, prevent conflict with wildlife and allow campers to keep each other accountable. The camp was shut down in June, in part because of the extreme fire danger.
Homeless residents were moved around several times over the summer, before the city of Durango closed a camp near Greenmount Cemetery in late August and did not provide an alternative.
Since then, some homeless residents, including Patricia Hollenbeck, moved back to the eastern slopes of the Hogsback, a popular hiking area and ridgeline just west of city limits.
Hollenbeck said she was aware of previous problems on Ella Vita Court, but some campers are now making a conscious effort to avoid the street by taking a different route to Manna, she said.
“We figured we got to keep the peace,” she said.
Since the closure of the camp near Greenmount Cemetery, the traffic on Ella Vita has ticked up, but it is not close to the numbers of people the neighborhood saw when the county’s camp was open, Smith said.
While the camp was running, the number of intoxicated people passing through the neighborhood “screaming and yelling” increased dramatically, Smith said.
“It was a constant flow of people walking up the street with their garbage bags,” she said.
Ella Vita Court resident Rob Middleton said he interacted with “belligerent” and seemingly “entitled” people. Middleton said he was told he was an “evil person and a sinner” because he works in Durango and built a home here.
At one point, the irrigation system in his backyard was ripped out by people trespassing on his property, he said.
In one dramatic case, Middleton’s dog, a blue heeler, discovered the remains of Dylan Gerald Douglas in the woods near the subdivision this summer. He said he thought his dog had discovered a dead deer in the woods when he came home smelling like death twice and threw up in his home.
The second time the dog came home smelling like death, Middleton said he went looking for a deer carcass and discovered Douglas. The La Plata County coroner later ruled Douglas’ death a homicide. The case is still under investigation, Cpl. Travis Ketelsleger said.
Middleton said it is “disturbing” to think Douglas’ killer may still be in town and among those regularly using Ella Vita Court to access a campsite.
When residents expressed concerns about the disturbances to law enforcement, the Durango Police Department encouraged them to report suspicious activity, said Cmdr. Ray Shupe, spokesman for the department.
Ella Vita residents called the department 24 times, mostly about suspicious activity and disturbances, between May 1 and Sept. 30, 2017. Residents called the department 39 times during the same period this year.
Ella Vita police calls 2017