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ACLU takes aim at Durango’s camping ban

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Friday, Aug. 24, 2018 9:10 PM
Residents in the temporary homeless camp near Greenmount Cemetery were forced to leave Friday, and now there are few options other than to camp illegally or go elsewhere.

The American Civil Liberties Union sent a strongly worded letter to the city of Durango, urging the city to suspend enforcement of its camping ban in light of the recent decision to close the only sanctioned homeless camp.

“It is cruel and unconstitutional to criminalize camping in public spaces when – due to city action – homeless residents have nowhere else to go,” the ACLU wrote in its letter.

Calls to Durango City Manager Ron LeBlanc and City Attorney Dirk Nelson, as well as several city councilors, were not returned late Friday. Mayor Sweetie Marbury said she had not seen the letter and referred all questions to city officials.

The city of Durango last week said it had no plans to provide overnight camping for homeless people, a drastic change in plans after the city for months has said it would find a permanent location for a homeless camp.

“The city is not in the business of having a homeless shelter,” Marbury said in a previous interview.

A temporary camp near Greenmount Cemetery closed Friday, which means after being moved to four campsites this year, homeless people in Durango have no designated place to camp.

With bans on camping on city of Durango and La Plata County lands, homeless people have few options other than to camp illegally or go elsewhere.

The ACLU commended La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith’s handling of homeless camping in recent years. For the past several years, homeless residents could sleep behind the Durango Tech Center without repercussions.

Smith had maintained it was unconstitutional to enforce the no-camping ban if there was no alternative place for people to sleep.

“La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith recognized that the city had insufficient shelter space and that ticketing homeless people for camping when they had nowhere else to go was not only cruel, but also unconstitutional,” the ACLU said.

Smith closed the site in May based on the city of Durango’s promise to open a homeless camp, which was supposed to be located next to the Durango Dog Park, before the city changed its mind.

“The city is not only forcing many homeless residents to sleep and live outdoors in public spaces but is also apparently planning to step up enforcement of the city’s camping ban,” the ACLU said.

The ACLU said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that laws punishing people based on involuntary status alone are cruel and unusual and in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

“Durango’s camping ban ... serves no other purpose than to punish people experiencing homelessness merely for their involuntary, life-sustaining conduct of sleeping outdoors when no reasonable shelter space exists,” the ACLU said.

This is not the first time the ACLU has weighed in on Durango’s policy toward homeless people.

In 2014, the ACLU intervened when the city of Durango cracked down on loitering in public places, arguing the proposed ordinance violated freedom of speech rights.

At that time, the city of Durango stopped enforcing the law.

This May, however, the city of Durango passed a new ordinance that bans sitting and lying down on downtown sidewalks, curbs and other public areas.

The ACLU in its letter called out the ordinance as “plainly directed against people experiencing homelessness” and accused the city of a long line of criminalizing homelessness.

“The city of Durango must acknowledge the real-world, inevitable effects of its closure of the homeless encampment: Many of the city’s unhoused residents will have no choice but to live and sleep in public spaces,” the group said.

“Given this reality, we urge the city to do what is constitutionally required to at least minimize the harm to unhoused people caused by the city’s choice to close the encampment: stop enforcing the camping ban.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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