After months of hearing others talk about what is best for La Plata County’s unhoused community, four people from that group are speaking up for themselves.
Jake Fixico never expected to spend more than a year without a home. Now, he just wants his son to visit – and see that it is possible to overcome anything.
Tomi Rae Forquer battled her way out of an abusive relationship and excessive drug use. She hasn’t been able to find a way back into stable housing.
Tim Sargent is a veteran who worked odd jobs before embracing the hippie lifestyle. A relative’s death motivated him to become an advocate.
And Arlene Butters is trying to find stable housing while getting her granddaughter through elementary school.
Homelessness takes many forms in La Plata County. Some people sleep in tents at the homeless camp known as Purple Cliffs south of Durango. Others stay at homeless shelters, sleep in cars or couch surf as long as possible. Some are enrolled with transitional housing programs while working toward financial stability.
Officials have spent years waffling over the best route forward for addressing the growing homeless population in Durango and La Plata County. This fall, the county threatened to close Purple Cliffs, then allocated $100,000 to find a solution in 2021. Durango backed away from a highly managed camp near downtown while approving a 40-unit transitional housing apartment complex near the same location.
Some people experiencing homelessness have their own ideas about what can be done to offer the most help.
Fixico said the city needs to provide the most basic necessities if it wants to help turn the tide on homelessness – things like showers, job training and ensuring personal safety.
Forquer’s biggest priority is creating more rehousing options for people who are in recovery from drug use while experiencing homelessness.
Sargent said plenty of homeless residents are able and willing to work, they just need help getting off the ground.
Butters said the difference between finding and losing rehousing opportunities can come down to a cellphone – or a down payment and first month’s rent.
Jake Fixico, 46, came to Durango in May 2019 with a quarter-tank of gas and $20 in his pocket.
He played minor league baseball in Oklahoma during his early 20s, and moved to Farmington with his family when his wife was transferred for work. But he was struggling with a 20-year drug addiction, and he and his wife were separating.
“It created a perfect storm,” he said, which left him unhoused.
He stayed in his car or at Purple Cliffs. He entered a detox program through Axis Health System, but the “cold-turkey” approach was too much of a shock for his system.
It was a dark time for him, but this fall, his life was back on track – or getting there, he said.
Fixico feels healthy after 18 months without misusing drugs, mostly through community support and his own efforts. He found seasonal work, became involved with the Adventure Christian Church community and began doing outreach work to help other people experiencing homelessness.
“My goal is I want to have a roof for (my son) to be able to come here and stay with me,” he said. “This is just a total crazy thing for me. I never thought I would be in this situation, but I am. You can either embrace it and move forward or let it ruin you.”
He reached out to multiple housing support organizations, like Housing Solutions, but nothing came of it. Either he didn’t qualify because he was working too many hours in the seasonal position, or he didn’t hear back when that position ended in the fall, he said.
When the coronavirus began to spread in Colorado in March, the church’s pastor offered him a place to stay indoors, Fixico said.
As the city and county try to improve the support system for unhoused people, Fixico said officials should focus on safety – for people’s belongings, health and living situations.
He looks forward to having one place to obtain resources at a navigation center, included in the 2020 strategic plan, and he suggested bringing on-site job training programs and/or free medical consultations to campers. Access to bathrooms and transportation at a designated camp were vital.
“If the homeless was given a chance ... to work, they would definitely make an impact on society. But you don’t feel human because you haven’t had an adequate shower. ... You don’t want to be around other people,” he said.
His message to the community: We’re not bad people.
“We’re sons, fathers ... we’re family members just like everybody else,” Fixico said. “I want (my son) to understand that no matter what’s in front of you, you can overcome it and be successful.”
Tomi Rae Forquer, 40, has lived in Durango most of her life, with a childhood characterized by ice cream/movie nights and playing with kids at the campground her grandparents managed.
“I have a lot of good memories from the KOA over there,” Forquer said.
But challenges during the last two years have left her in limbo: unstable housing without enough support to find a way out.
In 2019, Forquer was arrested after a domestic violence incident. Her and her husband of 16 years had fallen into patterns of heavy drug use and violence, losing their business in the process.
“I couldn’t do it anymore, I had to leave,” she said.
She became homeless while on probation. She considered staying at Purple Cliffs but felt it would be unsafe. She has been bouncing between houses while her children stay with their grandparents.
In the spring, she found work in a hotel, but she was laid off as the coronavirus pandemic hit La Plata County. In May, she began inpatient rehabilitation treatment for excessive drug use and stopped using.
“I’ve been using for 20 years,” Forquer said. “It’s a huge accomplishment for me, and I’m really proud of it.”
This fall, the couple was divorcing; in December, her probation ends.
“I’m just trying to get my life back on track,” she said.
But finding stable housing remains a challenge.
She had been approved for a Housing Solutions transitional housing program, but it was at the same time as her rehabilitation so she lost the opportunity. Now, because she has places to stay and unemployment benefits, she is not eligible for some rehousing programs, Forquer said.
But those places all belong to her soon-to-be ex-husband’s family – which is not an ideal situation, Forquer said. If she loses those options, she doesn’t have enough money to stay in hotels or motels.
“I might be able to afford one or two nights. What’s going to happen next week or the week after that?” she said.
As someone in recovery, she’s worried about being on the streets or in motels where drug and alcohol use are happening.
“It kind of frustrates me because I’m trying to avoid having to be out on the streets ... being put in situations that aren’t safe,” Forquer said. “In order to get some of the help that this town has to offer, you literally have to have absolutely nothing to lean on.”
For a city and county trying to find ways to support its unhoused community, a sober living environment should be a priority, Forquer said.
“When someone that is in recovery doesn’t have a place to go to stay warm ... some of them struggle with wanting to continue to be sober,” Forquer said.
The low-barrier camp at Purple Cliffs, the permanent transitional camp proposed by Neighbors in Need Alliance and the housing programs at Espero Apartments will all be helpful. But the city also needs to focus on affordable housing for people with low incomes, she said.
She also suggested more work opportunities for people in unstable housing or who are unhoused.
“It gives people something to strive for that gives them confidence and reassurance, and maybe some hope, and there just isn’t really much hope out there,” Forquer said.
Tim Sargent, 57, a community leader at Purple Cliffs, lived outside off and on for years before realizing in 2002 it was a long-term possibility for him.
“I didn’t so much choose it as it just became more evident that I was going to end up that way,” Sargent said.
Sargent has helped his peers create a sense of community at the camp and advocated for Purple Cliffs before city officials. His past experiences gave him the tools to do that, he said.
Sargent earned his GED diploma at 17, joined the Army reserves at 18 and left the military at around 21.
He hitchhiked from Pueblo to California “to find the hippies.” He learned about community organization while at Rainbow Gatherings. He became an environmental activist, at one point spending five weeks living in an 1,800-year-old Redwood tree to save it from being cut down.
In Pueblo, he was in permanent housing and worked as a house painter periodically over 40 years. He spent six months in jail after assaulting two police officers in 2012. In 2016, he arrived in Durango.
It was his nephew’s death from a drug overdose in 2019 that motivated him to be more active in the homeless community, he said.
Sargent sees poverty as the main barrier between people and permanent housing, especially with high housing prices.
“Poverty is the No. 1 issue. People aren’t unhoused because of mental illness – there’s mental illness in wealthy families,” he said.
He wants Purple Cliffs to remain in place for the long term. It is managed by campers, instead of people outside the camp, and provides enough structure for safe living. He also suggested day labor opportunities or temporary work programs.
“(The city) needs to come up with a place where people who live in their vehicles can park,” he said, primarily for those who lost their jobs because of the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The next option for them is often to stay in their vehicle.
Homelessness is an issue across the country, and Durango will always attract people who want to live here, regardless of whether they have money, he said.
“We care about what happens here,” Sargent said. “I want to make this work. I want to be part of the solution.”
Sargent might one day choose to live in permanent housing, but for now, he is comfortable.
“I’m in a position where I feel needed. I’m doing some constructive things with people,” he said. “I’m making a difference in people’s lives.”
For two years, Arlene Butters, 58, and her son, Jacob, and granddaughter have gone between camping, staying in motels, living in homeless shelters, crashing with family members and staying at Purple Cliffs.
They were all living in the same home, including with Butters’ other son and his family, but were evicted because too many people were living there, Butters said.
They tried to seek housing assistance, but a simple issue – inconsistent phone access – made it difficult for Butters to hear about opportunities and follow up.
“I want to just see us in a home that we can maintain. The cost of living here is pretty high, but Jacob makes enough money,” Butters said.
All that’s standing between them and permanent housing is enough to make a deposit and the first month’s rent, Butters said.
“We can maintain it from there,” she said.
Her son, Jacob, 35, works long hours with a roofing company, although sometimes he can’t make it to work because the family doesn’t have a car or other transportation access.
Butters, from Michigan, has numerous health conditions, like degenerative spinal arthritis and thyroid problems, that have kept her from working.
Other Purple Cliffs campers have driven her to medical appointments when she couldn’t find transportation, but after the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office had campers’ vehicles towed this week, that option seems less likely, she said Wednesday.
Natalie Smith, 10, a student in the Durango School District 9-R, has a laptop at the Purple Cliffs camp so she can do her schoolwork while the district does remote learning because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Her school, Needham Elementary, continued some in-person lessons for highest-need students, including Natalie, and coordinated a temporary school bus stop at Purple Cliffs for her, Butters said.
“It’s been quite adventurous for Natalie. Everybody seems to love her wherever she goes,” Butters said. “She’s got a lot of mixed emotions about (remote learning). She misses her friends. ... She loves to go to school – it’s just been hard.”
In the last week, the family learned that a community member wanted to pay for their rent and deposit fees. Additional community members paid for nights at a hotel so the family could spend Thanksgiving indoors.
Those significant changes are because of community generosity. Butters said the city and county should pursue both Purple Cliffs and the transitional housing camp as additions to Espero Apartments.
“This community has been pretty much shut down. It’s hard for people to figure out how they’re going to survive and go on,” Butters said. “I think if they had that much more support, then they would have more of a will.”