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Why can’t Durango’s unhoused manage themselves?

Some Purple Cliffs residents say they already have a managed camp; La Plata County and advocacy groups disagree
Timothy Sargent, a Purple Cliffs camp leader, shows the batteries he bought so Purple Cliffs community members can charge their phones. Sargent and a group of 15 to 20 Purple Cliffs residents have steadily improved the camp with the help of community groups to make the camp more self-sufficient. Sargent said Purple Cliffs is “self-managed.” (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

As La Plata County and the city of Durango press forward with plans for a managed camp, an inevitable question arises: What happens to those who do not want to leave Purple Cliffs and move to the managed camp?

Some residents of Purple Cliffs think they have found an answer: create a managed camp themselves.

Timothy Sargent, a camp leader, and other residents at Purple Cliffs have invested their time and money, along with assistance from local homeless groups, into making the campsite livable and safer. They argue that their self-management and governance have created a type of managed camp that demonstrates that Purple Cliffs can work for those who do not want to move to the county’s and the city’s new site.

“People say it’s not managed, but we use the term ‘self-managed,’” Sargent said. “We manage ourselves, and we do a pretty good job of it.”

Construction of a community

Residents have turned Purple Cliffs into its own community, a miniature town for the unhoused on the southern edge of Durango.

They have built a kitchen at the central pull-off along La Posta Road (County Road 213) where community members can cook meals and congregate. The “library” serves as a community center and meeting hall and hosts church services. During summer, they erect a “sun shelter” on the north end of the camp for overflow campers and where people can spend time in the shade.

At Tim’s Café, Sargent’s bakery and charging station, residents can bake chicken, apple pies or cookies with a propane oven while charging their phones with deep submarine batteries that Sargent bought with several hundred dollars.

Purple Cliffs residents have installed steps and trails throughout the hillside to make the area safer and more easily navigable.

“Everything we put in here, we had to put in,” Sargent said.

Astro, a resident at Purple Cliffs, shows a clean syringe on Tuesday. Astro led residents of Purple Cliffs in creating their own needle exchange program after they decided they no longer wanted to find needles in the camp. Since the introduction of the program, the camp has seen a roughly 90% reduction in littered needles, Astro said. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Residents of Purple Cliffs have also taken to financing some of their operations. At his café, Sargent asks everyone who charges their phones to donate 50 cents to pay for the gas that runs a donated generator.

“Through our small donations we’re able to fill up a 5 gallon gas tank that I bought,” he said. “Anytime I need to refill the tank, I just look in our collection and sure enough we have enough to pay for it.”

Sargent in particular has invested his time and money into projects that make Purple Cliffs more of a home for those who live there, building steps and the frames for many of the structures or buying batteries or tarps to protect people from the elements.

Next month, he plans to begin buying six solar panels so that by summer residents can rely on them and his batteries for their charging needs.

“I would not ask 80 people to stay up on the side of the hill and not make it comfortable, so I’ve taken the initiative and made structures and put in infrastructure to make (Purple Cliffs) viable,” he said. “I basically just do what I can to make it livable out here.”

Sargent and his friends plan to continue making improvements to further help those at Purple Cliffs and make the camp more self-sufficient. He used his money from the federal government’s pandemic stimulus checks to invest in a canvas tent and a wood stove.

He envisions uniform canvas tents for all residents of Purple Cliffs both for durability and warmth, and so that the appearance of the camp is standardized and has “a parklike look.” Astro, a friend of Sargent’s, identified a gray water filtration system that residents want to install to treat their water.

“I’m always trying to push to be as self-sufficient as possible,” Sargent said. “I appreciate all the donations that are given by the community, (and) it’s amazing the community outpouring. But I want people to be as self-sufficient as possible.”

While the residents of Purple Cliffs have done a lot to improve the camp and make it home, their efforts have largely been backed by community groups and individuals.

The Neighbors in Need Alliance, a local homeless advocacy group, helped stabilize Purple Cliffs during the pandemic after receiving money to help with the efforts.

NINA helped install water tanks and a pump shower for residents and paid for some of the lumber that Sargent and others used to build his bakery and steps into the hillside.

A donation from Donna Mae Baukat, executive director of Community Compassion Outreach, another nonprofit aimed at helping those experiencing homelessness, funded the canvas tarps to cover the structure.

A resident of Purple Cliffs sits in the “library” and community center that the unhoused community at Purple Cliffs helped build. In addition to the library, residents of Purple Cliffs have helped establish a kitchen, sun tent, bakery and numerous trails and steps to make the camp safer. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

La Plata County bought the camp a solar power station. Others have contributed the propane oven in Tim’s Café, volunteered to help build the structures or financed, donated and installed other various improvements.

Community organization and policies

Residents’ belief that they are operating their own kind of managed camp does not end with the construction and financial support of their infrastructure. Residents have organized themselves to take care of essential functions of the camp.

Sargent leads community outreach in Purple Cliffs and works closely with outside outreach groups, connecting residents with mental health counseling or other support services they may need.

Astro runs the camp kitchen, cooking for others and keeping the facility clean and orderly. When donations come in, he collects and organizes them so that they are shared by the community rather than held by one person.

A chaplain now holds services at the “library” and community center at Purple Cliffs homeless camp. While the residents of Purple Cliffs have done a lot to improve the camp and make it home, their efforts have largely been backed by community groups and individuals, including the Neighbors in Need Alliance, La Plata County and Community Compassion Outreach, an unhoused advocacy organization. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

A group of Purple Cliffs residents aims to clean up the abandoned camps left by those who stay for a month and leave.

“We’re constantly cleaning up here,” Sargent said. “We’ve had more cleanups in this camp in the last few years than I think they ever did at the (Durango) Tech Center. Our basic mantra out here is you’re always cleaning.”

The Purple Cliffs community has also established programs to support residents.

About five or six months ago, several community members came together at a community meeting and established Purple Cliffs’ own needle exchange. Astro led the effort after he and other residents decided they no longer wanted to find dirty needles on the hillside.

“I got sick and tired of living in filth like that,” he said. “You see a needle and it kind of breaks your heart. (The needle exchange program) works on the premise that I’m here to help you, but I’m not here to do it for you. I’m not here to condone your drug use.”

The group labeled disposal containers and gave them to those who struggle with substance abuse and placed them in community areas. Those who use can bring their dirty syringes to Astro, Sargent or others who hand them back the same amount of clean syringes.

If someone does not have a dirty syringe, those who run the program will sometimes give them a clean syringe so they are not using a dirty one.

Sargent said the program has already made a difference, decreasing the number of needles residents find in the camp.

“We’re not trying to promote drug use at all,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is make sure they are safe.”

Along with these efforts, Purple Cliffs has developed a system of governance. Sargent and other residents of the camp aim to hold community meetings twice a month to discuss camp-wide issues and inform one another about ongoing work or personal issues.

Sargent and his group developed a set of 10 camp rules to guide conduct at Purple Cliffs. They included no violent behavior, no destruction of community property and no fires out of season. Rule 8 directs residents to treat others with the same respect they expect for themselves.

Astro and others have gone so far as to change the verbiage of the rules to better meet the needs of residents.

“Most of us hate rules society puts on us, so we call them practices,” he said. “We ‘practice’ these things because we’re learning to live with other people’s problems along with ourselves.”

It has taken Purple Cliffs time for residents to get to a place where they can work with one another and manage the camp, but Sargent and Astro argue they have created an autonomous and self-regulating community.

“We’re not just 80 campers stuck on a hill,” Sargent said. “We’re actually a community and we have community structures, and we get together in places and socialize and eat and have fun and do things other communities do. And it works.”

Timothy Sargent, a leader at Purple Cliffs, walks up stairs he and others at Purple Cliffs have helped build with donated lumber and supplies. The steps help residents navigate the hillside on snowy and muddy days. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Does a self-managed camp work?

Community groups support the work of Sargent and other residents of Purple Cliffs, but they still call for an official managed camp.

“It’s marvelous what they’ve done,” said Baukat, the executive director of Community Compassion Outreach. “I know how hard they work to help make it livable.”

But while Sargent and other residents have tried to improve Purple Cliffs and create their own self-managed camp, problems remain.

The county worries about the disposal of wastewater and the lack of significant infrastructure, as well as the gases seeping out of the hillside that could harm residents.

Residents cannot keep up with trash, even with NINA, the county and volunteers helping, said Caroline Kinser, board chairwoman of NINA.

Homeless advocacy groups assist with the construction of structures and have donated much of the supplies and money that allow those at Purple Cliffs to sustain themselves and their community.

“They still need services and they still run into basic needs,” Baukat said.

Perhaps the most significant concern of both Kinser and Baukat is security. Even with camp rules in place conflicts arise, and neither Sargent nor other residents has the authority to act.

The lack of authority is complicated by the fact that Sargent and his group account for only 15 to 20 of the about 80 people living at Purple Cliffs. With only a subset of the population and with no authority, Sargent and others still face theft and other issues.

A donated propane oven residents can use to cook or bake food at Purple Cliffs homeless camp. While some residents of Purple Cliffs argue they have created a self-managed camp, La Plata County and advocacy groups disagree. A sanctioned managed camp would be staffed, regulated and uniform with services on-site. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

According to Kinser and Baukat, Sargent now rarely leaves his tent.

Sargent said Purple Cliffs has had no homicides, overdoses or suicides. One attempted rape was prevented by residents. Sgt. Chris Burke with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office confirmed those figures were roughly accurate. But even with some self-governance, the threat of violence and other conflicts have not gone away.

“I think they would very much like to be self-managed, but they are not able to do that,” Kinser said. “Purple Cliffs is not in any way, shape or form like what we’re talking about for a managed camp.”

No alternative

The sanctioned managed camp envisioned by homeless advocates and the county and city would be staffed, regulated and uniform with services on-site. The camp would offer bathrooms, hand-washing stations, showers, meals and case management to residents, as well as a fence and security at night, according to a NINA flyer and Kinser.

It would serve as transitional housing, somewhere between Purple Cliffs and Espero Apartments, Kinser said.

While some at Purple Cliffs would be interested in relocating to the managed camp, many do not plan on moving.

Sargent said the campers are tired of moving and have spent the time to build up Purple Cliffs, turning it into their home and community.

Sargent and Astro said they are concerned about the security of an externally managed camp, arguing they do not want to pass through a gate or other security checkpoint to access their tents. The rules campers would have to follow also do not appeal to them.

The proposed location for the camp on county-owned property near the Ella Vita and Crestview neighborhoods in west Durango would also prevent many residents from transitioning to the managed camp, Sargent said.

Residents of Ella Vita Court and Crestview have been vocal and pushed back against the county’s and the city’s plan to locate a managed camp near their homes after an unhoused camp near the Durango Tech Center from 2015 and 2018 left them traumatized.

“The currently proposed camp in town, no one here is interested in it,” Sargent said. “I want to let the people of Ella Vita and that community know that the people here do not want to move there. There’s just too much anger, too much hostility ... and people just don’t want to move into that environment.”

Used syringes from the needle exchange program that Purple Cliffs residents created in recent months. “We’re not trying to promote drug use at all,” said Timothy Sargent, a camp leader. “What we’re trying to do is make sure they are safe.” (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

While Sargent and residents of Purple Cliffs argue they have shown they can manage themselves, the county plans to move forward with its plans to close the camp.

“We appreciate that they have developed some level of self-governance out there, because without that Purple Cliffs would be exponentially worse than it already is, but it is not a managed camp” said La Plata County Manager Chuck Stevens. “It is not staffed, it is not regulated, it is not uniform, it doesn’t feed a housing-first model, and it doesn’t provide trauma-informed care. It’s not a managed camp.”

With the county set on closing Purple Cliffs, what happens to those who refuse to leave and move to the managed camp? The questions remains unanswered.

“That is the elephant in the room. That is the question everybody asks,” Kinser said. “There is absolutely no answer for it, except they will go back to dispersed camping. They will just join that crowd.”

Advocacy groups and the city and the county need to develop an outreach plan for those who will not leave, Baukat said. Stevens said the managed camp model the county and the city hope to replicate would include that outreach.

While Sargent argues residents of Purple Cliffs can self-manage the camp, the county has made up its mind.

“Purple Cliffs is just not the answer. It’s not, and the board (of county commissioners) has made it very clear,” Stevens said. “They’re not willing to continue the conversation about Purple Cliffs sticking around.”

But for Sargent and Astro, there is no alternative to Purple Cliffs and the camp that residents have created.

“This camp is not a camp, it’s a community,” Sargent said. “People here really feel tight-knit and they put a lot of effort into this place. And it works. It really works.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com



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