The city of Durango has no plans to provide overnight camping for homeless residents after Aug. 24, when a temporary camp near Greenmount Cemetery is set to close.
“The city is not in the business of having a homeless shelter,” said Mayor Sweetie Marbury.
It is a marked change in direction from earlier this year, when Durango City Council and city staff held numerous meetings to identify a location where homeless residents could camp without upsetting neighbors or posing a wildfire risk.
In April, the city agreed to create an overnight camp on a former uranium mill site, next to the Durango Dog Park, but that site also faced challenges, including questions about its safety for human occupancy. City staff looked into testing the site for radon but didn’t receive a response from companies, Marbury said. The testing could also be expensive, she said.
Marbury said Friday the council is “letting go” of plans to allow homeless residents sleep adjacent to the dog park. That means after being shuffled to four campsites this year, homeless residents will be left without a designated camping area, leaving them with few options.
Durango does not have enough shelter space for everyone in need, and camping is banned in open spaces around town.
At a recent meeting, Councilor Melissa Youssef said people will likely disperse into the open spaces surrounding city limits.
“If there isn’t a place for them to go, then there will be illegal camping,” she said.
The city’s current stance seems to conflict with the La Plata County sheriff’s expectations.
Sheriff Sean Smith said he committed to closing a camp for homeless residents on county property west of town and enforcing camping bans because the city committed to opening an alternative site.
“I would like to see the city live up to their commitment, as we work together to come up with a better long-term plan,” he said. The city, the county and nonprofits plan to meet biweekly to address the issue.
Marbury disagreed with Smith’s statements, saying the county closed its camp because of the 416 Fire, which started June 1, not because the city had opened a new camp. But the city and the county were in negotiations about closing the county campsite and opening a city campsite long before the 416 Fire started. A city resolution adopted April 3 states the city camp would allow the county to close its camp and allow the sheriff to enforce a camping ban in other parts of the county.
La Plata County permitted homeless residents to camp north of the Tech Center for several years because Durango did not have an overnight camp or sufficient shelter space.
The sheriff has said in previous interviews and at public meetings that he can’t arrest people for sleeping in public places if they don’t have anywhere else to go because doing so could violate their constitutional rights – essentially punishing them for being homeless.
“We have to find a way to balance the needs of all our citizens, and we have to find a way to meet the legal threshold,” Smith said this week. “And so it’s not appropriate for us to say there is no option.”
Currently, bans on camping in the open spaces around Durango enforced by the city, the Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management leave residents with limited options.
“I have all my equipment. I could live in my tent, but there is no place for us to go,” said Millie Sanders, a homeless resident.
Many homeless residents have already left the city’s Greenmount camp. Some became frustrated with the city’s requirement to take down tents during the day and leave the site. Some protested by refusing to take down their camps and, as a result, were forced to leave.
While the city has abandoned plans to open an overnight camp, it suggests homeless residents remaining at the Greenmount site consider moving to Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community in Las Animas, Marbury said. The facility offers transitional housing for homeless individuals and offers treatment for those struggling with addiction.
The Business Improvement District’s homeless outreach coordinator is also working with residents of the camp on future plans, said Tim Walsworth, the district’s executive director. The part-time position was jointly funded by the city and BID.