Even during a pandemic, people living at Purple Cliffs, the city-designated homeless camp south of downtown Durango, have to share space. Campers share an outdoor shower near clusters of tents and gather, without facial coverings, in a makeshift kitchen to prepare food.
No one in the homeless community has reported symptoms of COVID-19, according to camp representatives and San Juan Basin Public Health. Campers say steady donations and a growing sense of community keep them safe.
“Up here, we’re all a community,” said Tim Sargent, the camp leader. “If one of us has got (COVID-19), all of us are going to get it, no matter what we do. We don’t have homes to separate ourselves.”
No reported symptoms does not mean the campsite is virus-free: Studies have found asymptomatic spread at homeless shelters and camps in other cities. Avoiding viral spread among homeless populations requires communitywide planning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Southwest Colorado, the Southwest COVID Response Team has a subcommittee – made up of finance, transportation, food, health and other representatives – that supports homeless communities, such as Purple Cliffs. Inside the camp, resources abound and an informal leadership structure encourages social distancing. Outside, the response is more varied.
“It’s a drastic improvement over the previous homeless camp,” said Rick Foisel, who lived at a camp near Hogsback Mountain. “It’s much better conditions than what they had in the previous camp, and that’s also made a tighter-knit community.”
Community support and stigmaAbout 50 residents live at Purple Cliffs, and for the most part, they collectively agreed to self-isolate as much as possible. But Sargent said he can’t force people to stay at camp.
Self-isolation, however, is easier to do because of regular donations from the wider community.
Residents no longer need to leave as often for water. The camp has several hand-washing stations, an outdoor shower and large tanks of water that were donated by the Neighbors in Need Alliance and Basin Coop.
They have at least one meal per day provided by local groups, and a Durango benefit corporation, Solutions Inc., donated small spray bottles of hand sanitizer.
People rarely wear masks in the camp, but they do use face coverings when they need to go into town.
“By having an isolated community, we have very little contact with anyone else that might be contaminated,” said Foisel, who came to the camp a week ago. “If somebody starts showing symptoms, I’d imagine everybody would have to put on their masks.”
In town, the homeless community has also found social distancing to be easy.
“Homeless have cooties,” Sargent said. “People don’t want to be around homeless people. They act as if it’s contagious ... so they avoid us. We naturally have our own social distancing.”
Outside the campFor those outside Purple Cliffs, the response is highly individualized, said Richard Dilworth, who volunteers with Durango’s Business Improvement District as homeless outreach coordinator.
“There are some people freaked out about (the virus),” Dilworth said. Masks and hand sanitizer are more readily available at the camp than they are outside the camp, he said.
Dilworth and Donna Mae Baukat, executive director of Community Compassion Outreach, have met a few people who do not comply with public health guidelines because of mental health issues or political beliefs.
For example, some people did not want to wear masks, have their temperatures taken or practice social distancing during the group’s most recent well-attended food service in early May, Baukat said.
“It’s really difficult because they have their own conspiracy theories. ‘Oh well, this is just a political thing. It’s not real,’” Baukat said. “Education is going to be very important to make sure that other people are protected from the homeless community who do not take this seriously.”
‘You can’t avoid the inevitable’While Purple Cliffs has enough resources to stay isolated, the community is concerned the coronavirus will eventually arrive.
The camp has no known cases of COVID-19, but campers have also not been tested, Dilworth said.
Testing would catch any asymptomatic cases. For example, shelters in Atlanta and Seattle reported few or no COVID-19 symptoms among residents, but less than 5% of people still tested positive for the disease, according to a preliminary study released by the CDC on May 1.
In Denver, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless screened 52 men and women in early May. Of the 45 who showed no symptoms, 12, or about 26%, tested positive, according to Denverite.
Baukat said SJBPH is working with community partners to coordinate testing at Purple Cliffs. Once set up, it is Baukat’s hope that anyone unhoused and living outside the camp can go to the camp to be tested.
“You can’t avoid the inevitable. At some point, a lot of the population is going to get it one way or another,” Sargent said.
More people are migrating to the camp as the weather improves. Sargent’s main concern was viral transmission from someone from the Navajo Nation, which has one of the largest outbreaks in the United States.
“If anything, that’s probably the way it would come through,” he said.
If someone does test positive for COVID-19, that person will be put up in a motel room for 14 days. The rest of the camp could self-isolate. Sargent said that would have to be voluntary, and he isn’t sure how well it would be enforced.
But Purple Cliffs residents are buying into the camp’s sense of community, and it’s helping them work together to stay healthy during the pandemic, Sargent said.
“Being that we’re a community, we’re fairly close. We’re not as concerned about our safety. Most of us feel we’re going to be OK,” he said.
Homeless Community and COVID-19
The homeless population at Purple Cliffs now have a kitchen, running water, bathrooms and hand sanitizer. They made a group decision not to leave the camp whenever possible due to the Coronavirus . They even have a mini-government growing. People not at the camp are having a different experience.