Homeless residents create council to govern themselves

Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017 7:01 PM
Jessica Hill, a host at the homeless campground west of downtown Durango, said she used to panhandle nearly every day but has given it up after taking a leadership role at the campground. Homeless residents have created a governing council to oversee self-imposed rules.
Tom Bates, one of three councilors with the Homeless Camp Council, said residents for the most part have embraced the rules created to help oversee the campground west of Durango.
Jessica Hill and Tom Bates are part of the leadership structure created this year at the homeless campground west of Durango. They hold weekly meetings during the warmer months at Manna soup kitchen to keep residents informed about issues and concerns.
Jessica Hill at her campsite west of Durango. Hill has lived in the area for about three years. She became a camp host this year, which means she helps oversee compliance with the rules that homeless residents have adopted for themselves.

Homeless campers living west of Durango have created a governing council and adopted 19 rules for themselves to give order and security to an otherwise disorderly community.

Some of the self-imposed rules include: Hail other campsites before approaching. Keep noise levels to a minimum after dusk. Donate two hours per week to keep the camp clean. And use designated locations for bathroom needs, which includes burying waste.

“When it (Camp Council) was first created, I didn’t expect it to work,” said Tom Bates, one of three councilors on Camp Council. “We had chaos up there prior to this. Any community that doesn’t have structure, you have chaos.”

Homeless residents have camped west of Durango for several years. The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office used to perform sweeps, in which deputies would go through campsites and place green tags on tents, giving campers a certain number of days to move or face citations and possible seizure of their property.

This year, the Sheriff’s Office took a different tack by allowing campers to stay in exchange for a certain level of self-policing. So far, the experiment appears successful, with relatively few incidents and more adherence to basic rules, said sheriff’s Deputy Ed Aber, who acts as a liaison to the homeless camp.

Aber said Camp Council started with five of his own rules, including: pick up after yourselves, no criminal activity, don’t camp on trailheads, keep campsites small and don’t harass trail users. After that, camp leaders began adding their own rules, including no more than four people per campsite “because then it’s just a party” as one camp host said.

Giving campers a permanent home and creating Camp Council has created a safer environment, Aber said. Homeless residents are more willing to report crimes because they no longer fear retribution for camping illegally. It is similar to allowing residents who have entered the country illegally to report crimes without fear of deportation, he said.

“All I was trying to do was create a harmonious environment where we weren’t having negative interaction with the trail users or mutual harassment back and forth,” Aber said. “... There’s a trust that wasn’t there before.”

Not a typical governing boardCamp Council is less formal than a traditional governing body: It has no budget, no set meeting times, doesn’t publicly notice meetings, doesn’t keep minutes and doesn’t follow Robert’s Rules of Order – a standard often used for group decision-making. Instead, councilors meet informally when necessary and conduct weekly “community meetings” at Manna soup kitchen, which are attended by dozens of residents who want to share concerns or stay informed.

In addition to three councilors, there are four campground hosts who help oversee compliance with the rules and report violations or concerns to Camp Council. Only councilors have voting powers; majority rules.

The Council derives its power from the Sheriff’s Office, which enforces decisions made by the Council. In other words, if the Council votes to temporarily or permanently ban someone from the campsite for failing to obey the rules, the Sheriff’s Office enforces the edict.

About six campers were temporarily or permanently banished this year, Bates said.

Two of those expulsions occurred around Sept. 13 when one man stabbed another man after being attacked. The initial aggressor was given a one-month expulsion, and the man who did the stabbing was permanently expelled based on other actions, Bates said. The Sheriff’s Office investigated but didn’t file any charges, saying the man who stabbed the other man was acting in self-defense.

The kerfuffle greatly upset other campers, who stayed up late trying to figure out what happened and if it might result in them losing their campground, Bates said.

“They had that shock and horror going on,” he said.

Otherwise, the Council tries to maintain peace and create unity.

“It’s really like any community where we have an HOA or community watch – we’re all looking out for each other,” said Jessica Hill, a campground host. “We’re all coming together as a family and doing what we need to do, and it’s really working out well.”

A home for the homelessHaving a permanent campground with a social order has helped give structure to residents’ lives, Hill said. Before having a sanctioned spot, residents worried about leaving personal belongings behind for the day for fear of theft or seizure by law enforcement.

It is difficult to apply for jobs and to be taken seriously by potential employers when applicants show up with all of their personal belongings on their backs, Hill said. The camp has given residents a sense of security and stability, she said; they no longer worry about relocating at a moment’s notice.

“I can leave my home up there and not worry about people stealing from me, for the most part,” Hill said. “I don’t have to pack my entire house on my back every day and worry. So I’m really pleased with the way things have evolved.”

She also thinks it has reduced the amount of panhandling downtown because more homeless residents are able to maintain jobs now that they have a secure location to call home.

Hill and Bates have lived in the area west of Durango for about three years. They became leaders almost by default because of their tenure.

Since becoming a campground host, Hill said she stopped panhandling downtown and has a greater sense of meaning in her life.

“I panhandled downtown for two years solid every day like it was a full-time job because I took it seriously,” Hill said. “I made decent money because I treated it like my business. I was respectful of the business owners down there, I was clean, I didn’t swear. It was my storefront, plain and simple.”

She has since learned that “God provides” and says too many people would be mad at her if she returned to panhandling. “They want better for me, and they see that I’m pushing for better for myself,” she said.

Bates also said he has noticed a difference in homeless residents’ lives because they have a permanent campground.

“I’ve seen a lot more determination, I’ve seen a lot more willingness, I’ve seen less people down in town panhandling because people would rather work than fly a sign, because they’ve got a permanent place that they can leave their stuff and go out and find a job,” he said.

Bates also serves as the homeless-outreach coordinator for the Business Improvement District, which means he tries to keep other homeless residents in line and answers tourists’ questions about anything and everything.

He doesn’t try to prevent residents from panhandling, saying everyone needs money to survive. But he tries to prevent panhandlers from being overly aggressive. Some blow him off, he said, in which case he will tell a police officer to keep an eye on those individuals.

Some campground residents have tried to challenge the council’s authority, but Bates said he sticks to his guns.

“When you believe in something bigger than yourself, you have to be willing to stand tall,” he said.

Sanctioned campground grewThe homeless can be a tough population to manage. Some have criminal backgrounds, mental-health problems or severe substance-abuse problems. Those problems are not unique to homeless residents, Bates said, but camp leaders must be careful about how they approach certain people and situations.

Alcohol is allowed at the campsites, but “moderation is the key,” he said. “I’ve got one rule when it comes to drugs or alcohol: Do it, don’t let it do you.”

The number of campers on the county-owned property has grown from about a dozen campsites three years ago to about 45 campsites this summer, Bates said. Each site can have between one and four campers.

Camp Council approached Aber earlier this year to ask for a dumpster and portable toilet at the campground. Aber accommodated both requests. The dumpster helps keep the camp clean, and two portable toilets are emptied once a week.

Bates and Aber recently took a trip to Denver to attend a workshop about other homeless camps and permanent supportive housing. They also visited a homeless camp in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to see what they are doing that might be adopted locally. La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff joined them on that trip. One thing homeless residents have advocated for locally are lockers so they can store backpacks and other belongings.

Bates said homeless residents are always grateful for donations that can help them survive. Camp Council also accepts donations, including blankets, first-aid kits and other goods that can be given away as needed. Likewise, if anyone is experiencing homelessness and needs help, he encourages them to seek out a campground leader.

Some residents are one paycheck away from homelessness, Bates said. Camp Council serves as a resource to anyone needing help to stay warm, safe and well-fed, Bates said.

“We’ve got a lot of knowledge and a lot of talent,” he said.