La Plata County officials have identified a place for the homeless to legally sleep. The only problem: It happens to be on city property, and Durango city officials have so far been reluctant to give the go-ahead.
About an acre of slightly-graded open space near the northern end of La Posta Road and the Purple Cliffs – which was county property until about 10 years ago – has been used in the past by homeless campers, said county Commissioner Gwen Lachelt.
County officials thought the property may be a suitable location for the Sheriff’s Office to direct campers, especially when they are occupying lands where camping is not allowed, she said.
But upon further research, county officials found the city annexed the property, Lachelt said. So, at a scheduled meeting between county commissioners and city councilors last week, county officials proposed the spot as a location where law enforcement could direct homeless residents to sleep.
A federal circuit court opinion late last year found it unconstitutional to criminalize sleeping on public property when there is no other place for someone to rest.
In response, City Council adopted an ordinance in March to prohibit “camping” on any city-owned or city-managed property but allows “sheltering” in an area designated by the city manager.
City code defines “camping” as “temporary use or occupancy of a location for the purposes of a living accommodation.” It defines “sheltering” as “temporary overnight sleeping arrangements on a designated parcel of property for a period not to exceed the time between one hour before sunset ... and one hour after sunrise of the next day, with or without the use of cover or other protection from the elements.”
Where can they go?City officials have not, at least publicly, identified a location for homeless residents to sleep since March 15, when its camping/sheltering ordinance went into effect.
City Councilor Chris Bettin said Saturday that he responded to county commissioners last week on behalf of the council, telling them the City Council, with two new members elected in April, has not had substantial discussions about a site for the homeless to sleep.
“Just because we’re having a conversation about a site doesn’t mean we’re actually contemplating a site,” Bettin said.
Barbara Noseworthy, who joined City Council this spring, said there will never be a perfect location for people to sleep on public property, but the commissioners’ proposal is a good opportunity to collaborate with county leaders.
“We have to accept the fact that people are going to camp or shelter,” Noseworthy said. “I reminded folks that while (the camping/sheltering ordinance) has told everyone where they cannot camp, it doesn’t show them where they can.”
The council is scheduled to discuss the issue at a special study session at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
‘A very foundational step’The joint meeting between councilors and commissioners is the first time in almost a year that officials publicly floated a potential location for the homeless to sleep, Bettin said.
La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith has asked county commissioners where his deputies should send the homeless after kicking them out of illegal camping spots. That is what led to discussion of the Purple Cliffs property as a possible location, Lachelt said.
A homeless community living near the Durango Tech Center has worried city and county officials for years. It is a densely wooded, often steep-graded location prone to fire danger. It also affects nearby neighbors, and its remoteness has pulled law enforcement off the streets and into the rugged terrain to manage the population.
Camping near the Tech Center is illegal, but law enforcement so far has not been issuing citations to people sleeping where they shouldn’t. Instead, police and sheriff’s deputies have issued written and verbal warnings for campers to move.
Bettin said it is his understanding the number of homeless campers near the Tech Center has declined in recent months to a low of 11 campsites.
“We feel that what’s happening in the community is that much of the camping is dispersed,” he said. Parks and Recreation crews have removed trash, which they suspect is a product of the homeless, from open spaces all over the city.
The Durango-La Plata County Planning and Action Team on Homelessness – which includes representatives from the city, county, law enforcement, nonprofits, health care providers, concerned neighborhoods and housing nonprofits – released draft goals for addressing homelessness earlier this month.
The city and the county paid The Athena Group, an Olympia, Washington-based company, $70,000 to help local officials make informed decisions about how to manage the homeless population. So far, only draft goals have been released, and the draft is considered “a very foundational step,” said Meagan Picard with The Athena Group.
Durango Mayor Melissa Youssef said the goals are a good start, but she’s more interested in the forthcoming short-term, medium-range and long-term steps expected to be part of the new strategic plan on homelessness.
Coming to a headHomelessness is not a new phenomenon in Durango or La Plata County. Homeless residents tend to camp in wooded areas near or in city limits. Others sleep in cars, and some have sought shelter at the La Plata County Fairgrounds or the Durango post office.
But national recognition of a constitutional right to sleep in public spaces when someone has nowhere else to go forced Durango, La Plata County and municipalities all over the country to change how they address homelessness.
A 9th Judicial Circuit Court opinion in September validated a U.S. Justice Department statement in 2015 saying that “making it a crime for people who are homeless to sleep in public places, when there is insufficient shelter space in a city, unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless.”
Homeless residents were moved to about four different campsites last year. Eventually, the last camp was closed and the city of Durango abandoned plans to start a new camp near the Durango dog park. The decisions left the homeless without a place to legally sleep outside. It’s been that way ever since.