Homeless campers protest city rules at site near Greenmount Cemetery

Friday, July 20, 2018 8:53 PM
Homeless camp residents, from left, Wendy Myers, Millie Sanders, A.J. Singh and Patricia Hollenbeck on Friday discuss problems they have with a city policy requiring them to take down their tents every day at the temporary camp near Greenmount Cemetery.
Residents in the temporary homeless camp near Greenmount Cemetery left their tents up Friday to protest the city’s rule requiring them to take down their tents each day before 9 a.m.

Homeless residents refused to take down their tents or leave their campsites Friday in protest of rules enforced by the city of Durango at a site near Greenmount Cemetery.

The rules have caused numerous problems, such as theft and property damage, and the tents will not come down until regular communication with the city starts, volunteer camp manager Jacob Jost said.

“We are being treated like fourth-rate citizens,” he said.

The city requires campers to take their tents down by 9 a.m. each day and leave the site until 6 p.m. While the site is uninhabited during the day, property, such as laptops, camping gear and birth certificates, is being stolen, Jost said.

The city hired staff members who were expected to manage the camp in the mornings and evenings, but those people are almost never present, he said. The Durango Police Department was also expected to regularly patrol the area, and it hasn’t been, he said.

Jost said he would like to meet with city staff and the police to discuss camp management.

“We just need to sit down and have civil conversation and work all this out,” he said.

Assistant City Manager Kevin Hall visited the camp Friday and told campers he expected the tents to be taken down daily starting Saturday to comply with the policy set by Durango City Council. He did not force the campers to take down the tents Friday, and he told them he would like to have good dialogue with them.

Jost and his camp co-manager were not present for Hall’s visit because, they said, he was late.

During Hall’s visit, campers told him about some of the issues around closing the camp during the day. They also requested leniency for sick and elderly campers, who would like to stay in the camp during the day.

Hall told campers the Police Department would start making more regular patrols to improve safety. He also said that every resident has the opportunity to bring concerns to Durango City Council for three minutes during regular City Council meetings.

When it comes to the city staffing the camp, the original expectation was the city would have staff check people in and out. But that is difficult in the evenings because people don’t show up all at once and the city doesn’t have the resources to staff the camp 24/7, Hall said, during an interview.

“It’s really not our responsibility to baby-sit this,” he said.

But a staff member is usually present to make sure people leave in the morning, he said.

The Business Improvement District is planning to hire an employee to do some outreach to the homeless community and that could include some additional camp management, he said.

Councilor Dick White said it was possible the issue of camp management could be discussed Tuesday during a work session, even though it is not on the agenda.

“It pains me to hear what’s going on up there,” he said.

The city has been wrestling with the issue of camping on public lands for years and an acceptable site for camping overnight inside city limits has not been identified.

The current camp was set up by the city for campers who were evacuated from La Plata County property during 416 Fire and didn’t have anywhere to go after the evacuation center at Escalante Middle School closed.

The site near Greenmount Cemetery, where 35 people are registered to camp, is set to close in August.

Before the latest homeless camp opened, city officials met with homeless campers to show them the rules for occupancy.

Campers were asked to sign an agreement pledging to abide by camp rules before they could move in. The city permitted only homeless campers issued Rapid Tag credentials given to evacuees of the 416 Fire to use the camp.

The city is interested in other groups, including nonprofits and faith-based organizations, setting up an alternative to the city’s site, White said. But there are no definitive plans for a site.

In recent months, as requirements have shifted for homeless residents, living conditions have gotten worse, campers said.

“We have been complying and complying, and they just make it worse and worse for us,” said camper A.J. Singh.

Taking tents down keeps them from drying out after rainstorms, so they are wet at night, Singh said.

The dumpsters provided as lockers have also leaked and property has molded, he said.

Allowing the camp to stay open during the day could prevent theft, and it would also better serve those who work nights or swing shifts, he said.