A new temporary camp for homeless residents is filling up west of downtown Durango near the base of Hogsback Mountain.
Residents earlier this week set up tents and tarps for shade on the barren acre of ground next to the capped Van-Dal landfill.
The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office started moving homeless residents from a scattered, dispersed site west of downtown Durango near the Tech Center to the new location last week to help mitigate fire danger during the drought.
“We’re making it work,” said Carl, a homeless resident who declined to give his last name. Carl serves as a camp host, meaning he helps coordinate fellow campers and makes sure others in the camp follow basic rules.
The original camp was in a wooded location, and officials frequently worried about threats from campfires. The city of Durango plans to open a more-permanent campsite adjacent to the Durango Dog Park. Once that campsite opens, campers will be required to move there to further prevent the threat of wildfire. The city expects to open its camp no later than June 30 – and possibly much sooner, according to a letter the city sent to the county last week.
The city and the county must provide a place for homeless residents to legally sleep outside because arresting people for sleeping outside could violate their constitutional rights, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In interviews this week, some homeless residents said they prefer to stay at the county’s new site than be transferred to the city’s proposed site. They said the county site is less visible than the dog park, and they feel it is safer.
Nora, another homeless resident who declined to give her last name, said she won’t move to the city’s new camp because it is a former uranium mill tailings site.
The long-time Durango resident said her sister helped clean up the uranium site in the 1980s and later died of three different types of cancer. Nora attributes her sister’s death directly to her work at the mill site, she said.
“Smelter Mountain is really bad. I can’t believe people walk their dogs down there,” she said.
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt on Wednesday pressed Durango City Manager Ron LeBlanc for more information on a health-risk assessment if people camp on the former tailings site. LeBlanc said he didn’t have any information on the matter and told county commissioners to contact the Colorado Department of Health and Environment.
In general, the Durango City Council is not making informed decisions concerning homeless residents, Nora said.
“I think the City Council needs to come out and pitch a tent for a few days,” she said.
Nora plans to be employed and housed before the city camp opens, she said.
As part of opening the new transitional site, sheriff’s deputies plan to post no-camping notices around the former camping area to inform residents they have one week to leave, said Lt. Ed Aber with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office.
The new county campsite has room for 40 tents. As of Tuesday, 33 camps were set up with about 40 people living there. Some homeless residents have expressed skepticism about living in close proximity to one another, and some have moved into the deep woods rather than move to the county’s new site, Aber said.
“They are waiting until I say, ‘You can’t stay here anymore,’ and they’ll disappear further into the woods,” Aber said. “The mentality is ... ‘If I get caught in a site, I move to another site and start over.’ And with that lack of accountability ... then we go back to abandoned homeless camp cleanups again.”
Lachelt said if people are pushed further into the forests, fire danger – which is the driving cause of relocating the camp – is likely to increase.
“I’m really concerned about dispersed camping further in,” Lachelt said. “There’ll be just as much or more fire danger than we have today.”
Patricia Hollenbeck, who has been homeless for three years, said she feels safer at the new site than camping in dispersed areas. The camp is running well, so far, she said.
“I know this can work because we will work together as a community,” she said.
Before anyone is allowed to move into the county site, residents must agree to follow two pages of rules as part of a formal registration process, Aber said. He also asks residents for their name, phone number and date of birth.
The detailed list of camp rules includes use of portable toilets, how dogs must be cared for and quiet hours.
The first rule requires homeless residents to respect Ella Vita Court. The residents who live on Ella Vita, a dead-end road west of Manna soup kitchen, have repeatedly expressed concerns at City Council meetings and other forums about homeless residents causing problems on the street.
The rules state that “harassment of Elle Vita residents, verbal or physical, will not be tolerated and will result in immediate termination of your ability to stay on the hill.”
The rules also prohibit criminal behavior, including illegal drug use. The Sheriff’s Office plans to conduct regular patrols with drug-sniffing dogs.
Those staying in the camp are required to complete four hours of community service per week in the camp, such as cleaning up trash in the camp and in surrounding areas.
Aber reviews all the rules in person with each new camper.
“Everybody’s on the same playing field,” he said.