The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office will move homeless campers next week from an area west of downtown Durango to an area south of downtown Durango to address residents’ concerns about trash and fire danger.
Sheriff Sean Smith asked homeless residents Wednesday at Manna soup kitchen to voluntarily move from an area north of the Durango Tech Center to the new location, said Chris Burke, spokesman for the department.
La Plata County is allowing homeless residents to move to a 200-acre county-owned parcel along La Posta Road (County Road 213) near the Durango Gun Club range. The area is south of a rock formation known as the Purple Cliffs on the west side of the Animas River.
The Sheriff’s Office and La Plata County commissioners came to the decision to move residents together, said county spokeswoman Megan Graham.
Sheriff’s deputies have been steering residents toward the Purple Cliffs property throughout the summer, she said.
“We are not forcing people to go to Purple Cliffs; we are just providing that as an alternative location where you go,” she said.
Durango does not have enough shelters for its homeless residents and the city of Durango does not allow camping on any of its property, so options for homeless residents are limited.
By default, the county-owned area above the Tech Center has been a popular camping area for years because it is close to Manna, Durango’s soup kitchen.
However, residents near Manna complain homeless residents trespass and litter and their campfires pose risk of starting a wildfire.
La Plata County has not officially allowed camping above the Tech Center since last year, County Commissioner Julie Westendorff said. She also did not believe the number of people sleeping in the area was significant.
The area south of Purple Cliffs was designated as an alternative because it poses less of a fire risk than the area north of the Tech Center, she said. The county road and Animas River provide natural fire breaks, which could prevent a blaze from spreading, she said.
The area also cannot be seen from homes across the river and it is 10 minutes from a bus stop, she said.
Some homeless residents have already complied with the request to move, Burke said.
“The first ones to get there are going to get the better locations,” he said.
But other homeless campers have concerns about the county-owned property’s distance from services, such as the city’s trolley system and the soup kitchen, said Donna Mae Baukat, president and executive director of Community Compassion Outreach. The nonprofit works to help residents survive and exit homelessness.
“Transportation is going to be a problem,” she said.
Those with physical disabilities might be particularly challenged by the area, she said.
Sheriff’s Office deputies plan to walk through the area above the Tech Center on Wednesday to ensure all homeless residents have left the area, Burke said. Camping gear and other possessions will be gathered by deputies and stored for 30 days in storage containers to give campers the chance to claim their property, he said.
The entrance to the new camping area has been marked with signs that read “La Plata County property,” “please do not litter” and “no campfires,” Burke said.
The property boundary lines have been marked with stakes so homeless residents know where they are allowed to stay, he said.
Durango City Councilor Kim Baxter said the city had not been informed about county’s plans for the area south of the Purple Cliffs, so she could not address the plans for the area specifically. But she could address the need for a designated camping area and policy to address the issue.
“I think having a place for homeless people to be and to camp is very, very important,” she said.
Before taking any action though, Baxter would like to know how many people are homeless in Durango and demographic specifics, such as how many are younger than 18, how many are parents with children, and how many have the mental health and drug problems. The data could help inform the city’s approach to the problem, she said.
“We don’t know what the unmet needs are and without that you really can’t make a plan that can be success,” Baxter said.
She expects The Athena Group, a consultant, to provide some demographic data in a strategic plan that should be finished in the winter, Baxter said. The plan is also supposed to identify steps the city and county can take to address homelessness.