The American Civil Liberties Union and National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty blasted the city of Durango in a report released last week that found the city has attempted to enforce its way out of homelessness rather than seek long-term solutions, as leaders often purport.
The two legal watchdogs allege the Durango Police Department has taken the city’s ban on camping and “stretched” it to target people experiencing homelessness who are sleeping on public property. The basis of the allegation is a study of 12 months of citations issued to people for breaking the city’s camping ban, which found the Durango Police Department issued 98 citations for violating the ordinance. More than half of those citations were given to people sleeping on the ground without cover or with a blanket, the report finds.
“The citations show that Durango police rarely enforce the no-camping ordinance against people engaged in traditional camping with shelter; instead, enforcement is focused on people who are simply sleeping on the ground, with or without a sleeping bag,” the authors wrote.
And the problems don’t stop there, lawyers argue. As wealth and homelessness increased over the past few years, “City leaders have made concerted efforts to push unhoused people out of public places, out of sight and mind,” the authors wrote.
Brian Schowalter, a local defense attorney who has offered to represent residents experiencing homelessness pro bono if they were cited for breaking the city’s no camping ban, said he has noticed a bit of classism seeping into Durango in the past decade. This classism has implicated people experiencing homelessness and exacerbated homelessness issues, he said.
People want to feel like Durango is a compassionate town, but this report doesn’t help that perception, Schowalter said.
“It’s unfortunate, no matter what side you’re on on this issue.” he said of the report. “I just feel like we’re better than this, there’s got to be something that we can come up with here.”
The report offers “Housing First” solutions to address the situation, showing through case studies the effectiveness of pairing people experiencing homelessness with immediate access to their own housing without barriers and without mandated compliance with services. Shelters in Durango are often at capacity and, when they are not, many people cannot sleep in them, the report found.
Utah reduced chronic homelessness by 91 percent with its statewide housing first model, authors write, and Massachusetts found that it saved $9,339 per person experiencing homelessness by getting them into permanent housing.
State Rep. Barbara McLachlan said in an email that people experiencing homelessness should not be punished for sleeping outside when they have nowhere else to go.
“Durango should be a welcoming and inclusive place. For many hardworking Coloradans, one accident or high medical bill could lead to their lives falling apart,” McLachlan wrote. “We have to work together to continue to build a community that creates more opportunity for all. Our state as a whole must work collaboratively to generate long-term solutions to homelessness.”
Mayor Pro-Tem Melissa Youssef said the report highlights the importance of working together to address a complicated issue like homelessness. There’s been a lot of good dialogue about wanting to help the community of people without homes, but that needs to be taken a step further to find real solutions to homelessness, she said.
“I think that the community is ready and is expecting community leaders to start talking about real solutions to addressing homelessness in our community outside of just enforcement,” Youssef said. “It’s taken us some time to get here, but people are recognizing that what we are currently doing is not addressing the issue at its core.”
Councilor Dean Brookie said in an email that he disagrees with many of the accusations made in the report about Durango’s actions and responsibilities.
“I feel sucker-punched,” he wrote.
Mayor Sweetie Marbury, Councilor Dick White, both of whom are term-limited come April, and Councilor Chris Bettin declined to comment and referred questions to City Attorney Dirk Nelson. Nelson did not return requests for comment.
The ACLU’s and NLCHP’s report may incite a “very negative perception” of Durango, said Donna Mae Baukat, executive director of Community Compassion Outreach, a local nonprofit dedicated to helping people survive and exit homelessness.
This report will likely get national attention as the ACLU and NLCHP spread the word about Durango’s alleged maltreatment of people experiencing homelessness, Baukat said. It’s the onus of everyone in Durango, from residents experiencing homelessness to business people and city leaders, to come up with solutions to the social condition, she said.
“I think it’s changed the tide,” Baukat said of the ACLU report. “I believe that the county representatives, city representatives, have observed that a community exists of almost 160 people (experiencing homelessness) that says ‘We want solutions.’”