Homeless residents have played musical chairs this spring and summer, having lived in four different campsites, with possibly a fifth to come.
The most recent home is a temporary site that opened last week near the entrance of Greenmount Cemetery, but residents say it is one of the least desirable settlements so far.
Durango city officials stress the most recent site is not a homeless camp; rather, it is an evacuation shelter. A previous camp overseen by La Plata County was evacuated, or closed, last month because of high fire danger. Residents were then “evacuated” to Escalante Middle School, where the American Red Cross operated a shelter for people evacuated by the 416 Fire north of Durango.
“This is an evacuation shelter only for 60 days,” Mayor Sweetie Marbury said of the temporary site near Greenmount Cemetery. “This is not a camp; this is not a long-term shelter.”
A set of rules govern the site, including the stipulation that it is open only during the night for sleeping, from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m., and residents cannot be there during the day. In addition, they can’t leave their tents standing. They must take them down every morning and set them against a fence.
Personal belongings can be kept in green, plastic garbage containers with locks.
Some homeless residents say the requirements are disruptive.
Patricia Hollenbeck, a homeless resident, said providing a place where homeless people can be only during a portion of the day is not a solution.
“We’ve got to tear down every day and leave every day,” she said. “We have no place to go but out on the streets, and that ain’t right.”
Hollenbeck said she would like to see the city identify a place where residents can live and be left alone. Otherwise, people complain about homeless residents using the Animas River Trail, and businesses complain when homeless residents hang out downtown.
Jacob Jost, who is an unofficial camp manager, said closing the camp during the day makes it impossible for people who work odd hours. Some people work the graveyard shift, so when they are not working, they have nowhere to go or sleep during the day, he said.
Two city councilors and city staff visited the site Friday. The councilors, along with Durango Police Department officers, went to the site because there were problems with occupants not packing up and leaving, said Councilor Dick White.
“The folks had agreed to leave in the morning, but they weren’t leaving,” he said.
Marbury and White said keeping the camp open during the day would have legal and financial implications.
“There are legal precedents that say that if you start camping, then you start kicking in the possibility of establishing domicile, and the city and our residents have not been through a process that says, ‘Oh yeah, we’re just going to open up a camp indefinitely,’” White said.
Jost said the previous camp run by the county was more conducive to community and helping the homeless. They would cook meals together and have weekly community meetings, he said.
The sense of community also created a sense of social responsibility: Residents picked up trash on trails and sidewalks and volunteered at Manna soup kitchen to contribute.
Jost said county officials were easier to work with than city officials.
Jennifer Hill, an unofficial camp manager and employee at Manna, said city officials paid her a special visit Friday, wanting her to deal with the problem of people not leaving the campsite as required.
“They came to my job and demanded from my boss that I come out and talk to them, and it was to me really disrespectful bringing that situation to my job,” Hill said.
Hill said she had to cancel her plans for the day to make sure other campers were leaving.
Living conditions haven’t been great for homeless residents, and the new rules and being moved around every few weeks hasn’t helped.
Smoke from the 416 Fire, which has reached “hazardous” levels in the evenings and early mornings, is affecting homeless residents who are outside 24/7. Health agencies recommend people and their pets avoid exertion and prolonged exposure during certain times of the day. But homeless residents have few options.
Marbury said cities don’t normally run homeless shelters, and she wishes other community organizations such as nonprofits and churches would work toward a solution.
“We’re not a nonprofit,” she said. “The city’s not a nonprofit.”
White also said it is a tough situation for local governments because multiple factors are at play, including compassion for human beings, responsibility for public property and public safety.
The Greenmount site will be open for 60 days. After that, it is likely a more permanent site will open near the Durango Dog Park. Homeless residents say they feel misunderstood by their critics.
“I feel like a disease because we’re homeless,” Hill said. “I’m sorry that I lived paycheck to paycheck, and now I’m considered bacteria or a virus because I can’t afford walls. It’s just really disheartening because I’m trying my damnedest.”
Said Jost: “We really just want to be treated fairly, and like we’re a part of the community.”