Debra Doane carries a 2-gallon plastic jug from her campsite on a hillside south of downtown Durango.
It is mid-morning, about 50 degrees outside and the sun warms her back as she passes “DANGER” signs warning that harmful levels of hydrogen sulfide gas seep from the ground. Contamination is most concentrated along the river’s west bank, but the rocky and brush-filled embankment is her only way to the Animas River, where she needs to fill up water for her dogs, Deogee and Tank.
Finding drinking water for herself – not to mention other basic survival goods – is a little more complicated.
“I worry about how to get food. In town, we have the bus to carry our stuff,” she said. “I don’t want to give this water to the dogs, but I don’t have a choice.”
Doane is one of about two dozen people living in an area called Purple Cliffs, a 200-acre site along La Posta Road (County Road 213) that La Plata County commissioners designated for homeless camping.
The site is steep, rocky and full of brush. It is about a mile walk to the nearest store or bus stop. It is even further to Manna soup kitchen and the La Plata County Department of Human Services, where many people living homeless go for support. Construction on a nearby traffic bridge has diverted more vehicles than usual onto La Posta Road, a narrow county road, making it dangerous to walk.
Since being moved to Purple Cliffs in September, some residents have struggled with access to food, fresh water and transportation. While the site is far from perfect, or permanent, the location gives people living homeless a sense of stability and community, said Timothy Sargent, a longtime Durango resident living at the sanctioned site.
“They don’t have to get up and move their stuff,” he said of the people living at Purple Cliffs. “Having that ability to feel some type of sense of permanence, it really helps a lot of people.”
Overcoming obstaclesHelle, a camper who declined to give her real name, woke up in her tent with a burning sensation in her toes.
The former EMT and firefighter dreamed she had fallen asleep outside and that her campfire ignited her shoes. In reality, her feet were just cold.
“Long term, this is not for me,” she said. “I’m waiting for housing; my idea is to get a job. I’ve got too many skills to be here wasting time.”
Helle said she has used her medical training to help fellow campers where she can. The Purple Cliffs area has sharp rocks and prickly vegetation that have caused injuries. Some have fallen in the dark and injured themselves. They lack access to proper sanitation, which has caused infection, she said. Mercy Regional Medical Center recorded 48 patients living homeless who sought emergency-room care during the 12 weeks from August through October, a spokeswoman said.
People living homeless need fleece blankets and large tarps to insulate and reinforce tents. People need fresh, drinkable water – the cold, dry air sucks moisture out of people, Helle said.
“The environment strips energy from our bodies,” she said. “That makes it hard to get up in the morning.”
The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office is paying for a couple of porta-potties and a dumpster at the site along La Posta Road.
“The traffic is being focused on this road, and it does become an issue in the morning and evening,” said Sargent, who moved to Purple Cliffs the day it was designated. “If you stand on the left side and stay in the ditch a bit, you can get along. But it’s tricky.”
Doane said it takes her 15 to 20 minutes to get across a footbridge to the north and to Walmart, where she can get food, clean water and transportation. Her asthma keeps her from hiking too far up the hillside to camp. She said she has seen big cats in the area, but her dogs make her feel a bit safer.
Helping outThe Sheriff’s Office helped people living behind the Tech Center, west of downtown Durango, move to the Purple Cliffs site in September. The location meets civil rights standards by providing a designated place for homeless people to sleep, according to county officials. A U.S. 9th Judicial Circuit Court panel of judges found last year that it is cruel and unusual punishment to prohibit someone from sleeping in public places when they have nowhere else to go.
The most consistent need for people living at Purple Cliffs, according to interviews with residents living there, is transportation.
La Plata County commissioners and Durango City Council have said another transit stop at Purple Cliffs could provide safe and efficient transportation to services. The two boards have discussed using joint sales tax funding to pay for it.
Assistant City Manager Kevin Hall said city-county money could be used to contract with the Southwest Center for Independence for vans to get people living at Purple Cliffs to the services they need. County spokeswoman Megan Graham said, “There have been a number of ideas floated. Right now, it’s looking as if we will earmark some joint (city and county) sales tax funding to resolve issues related to homelessness. But we haven’t settled on a number or what that may be.”
Durango law enforcement said it is lawful to “shelter” in city open spaces from one hour before sunset to one hour after sunrise, but it is illegal to “camp” anywhere else, including parks and common areas, said Police Chief Bob Brammer. The department is developing a “resource pamphlet” for people living homeless, which will include rules about where it is legal to sleep, he said.
“We need to protect that population at this time,” Brammer said. “If we can protect them to get basic needs, maybe they can focus efforts from survival and hopefully get back into the community.”
Donna Mae Baukat, executive director of Community Compassion Outreach, a local nonprofit helping people survive and escape homelessness, said she brings 16-ounce bottles of water and packed lunches to the site a few times a week. Passersby sometimes bring goods – blankets, clothes, food, water and even propane heaters – but donations are random and given out on a first-come, first-served basis, said people living at Purple Cliffs.
Finding communitySituated on a mountainside, Purple Cliffs is not ideal for camping. It took Bobby Womack a week to dig a flat surface into the hillside to pitch his tent.
He and his camp mate, Joe Brady, banter like talk-show hosts – Womack calls it “The Joe Brady Show” – except instead of big desks and a studio audience, they sit in old camping chairs on an uneven hillside. It’s been cold in Southwest Colorado, but Brady and Womack said they plan to stay in Durango for the winter.
“You have to be tough to be up here,” Brady said. “It’s like ‘Naked and Afraid’ but we’re clothed and freezing.”
While Womack and Brady are experienced campers and don’t mind the homeless lifestyle, many living on the hillside aren’t so skilled or experienced. Some don’t want to be there at all.
Sargent believes more people are living in areas not designated for overnight sleeping than there are people staying at Purple Cliffs. They don’t come to the sanctioned sleeping site for many reasons, he said.
The walk is too far for some people who are older or have disabilities; some are wary of government-designated sites for sanctioned sleeping – “They think it’s like a FEMA camp,” Sargent said; and others just want to be alone.
“The thing is, it’s a wait-and-see attitude,” Sargent said. “We’re going to be here as long as we can, as long as they allow. The long-term solution for a lot of these people is housing.”
Brady said he’s spent most of his life wanting for nothing. The location at Purple Cliffs, although OK for him, “alienates people from the resources they need,” he said. People need access to transportation – it provides opportunities to get food, find work and attain more permanent housing.
“It’s getting cold. When the snow comes, it’s survival up here,” Brady said. “The time is of the essence.”
firstname.lastname@example.org This story has been updated to correct the name of the group Community Compassion Outreach.