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A homeless encampment is pictured along the Animas River in Durango on Feb. 24, 2023. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Susan Tormoehlen considers herself lucky if she can find a quiet and warm place to sleep at night, usually under a bridge, by the Animas River or along biking trails in Durango.

She had been living at Purple Cliffs until September, when La Plata County closed the unsanctioned encampment south of downtown Durango where as many as 250 people lived, citing major health and safety concerns.

There were no alternative long-term housing options available for people who were removed from Purple Cliffs. And as a result, many people have continued to sleep outside in tents or in their cars, Tormoehlen said. 

Former Purple Cliffs residents were desperate while trying to survive outdoors in the winter, according to Tormoehlen, who said her fingers and toes were numb for more than a month because of the cold. 

Susan Tormoehlen, a former Purple Cliffs resident, now sleeps in a tent by the Animas River. “I couldn’t get a shower regularly. I couldn’t change my clothes regularly. It was just not feasible,” Tormoehlen said, after she and others were removed from the Purple Cliffs encampment. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

At the same time, Durango and La Plata County leaders have been using zoning and vagrancy laws to make it harder for people to live outside, ticketing them for nuisance violations and abating encampments, Durango attorneys, social workers and nonprofit managers interviewed for this story said.  

Doubling down on policing without offering alternative housing solutions makes Durango vulnerable to a lawsuit, a Colorado-based ACLU attorney said. 

ACLU of Colorado leaders pointed to other similar lawsuits they initiated against Fort Collins and Boulder, where people were ticketed for sleeping in their cars or in tents when there was no other shelter space available.

Durango and La Plata County have been working to reduce homelessness for years, and there have been some successes, such as a new project to create 120 affordable rental units at a former hotel in Durango and another $5.2 million effort to create long-term affordable housing.

But people who are homeless and the organizations supporting them said permanent housing projects are moving in glacial time and won’t meet the needs of the city’s growing homeless population.

When county leaders closed Purple Cliffs, they offered a $1 million grant to any group with a viable idea for housing people who are homeless, La Plata County Manager Chuck Stevens said.

One local organization has, so far, offered a possible solution that includes community engagement, case management and a capital acquisition project. If the project is feasible, the work may begin soon, he said.

“I think that this community, especially, has so many capable, professional and intelligent problem solvers that live here that I feel like we should be able to do more than we have been,” Stevens said.

Closing Purple Cliffs 

The Purple Cliffs encampment was in an unincorporated area just outside city limits where unsanctioned camping was allowed for four years. 

There was no management or staff on-site but local human service organizations would travel there to provide behavioral health care and deliver food and clothing. There were five portable restrooms that received weekly servicing and a trash dumpster emptied weekly, according to the Neighbors In Need Alliance, or NINA, which provided services to people living there.

Purple Cliffs, a former unsanctioned camping site for people who were homeless is pictured in late February in Durango, after the county removed people who were camping there. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The encampment sprung up in 2018, after people were moved on from several other locations across the city and county. 

In 2015, dispersed camping was allowed on county-owned land, west of the city behind the Durango Tech Center, near several neighborhoods. City leaders and law enforcement officers received calls from residents who reported disruptive behavior by people camping nearby, Stevens said.

When residents complained about the Tech Center encampment, the local sheriff at the time pointed to several court cases, including Martin v. Boise, which concluded cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have enough shelter beds available for their homeless population or an alternative housing location, Stevens said.

City and county leaders worked to minimize disruptions in the neighborhood. 

But soon after a Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train ignited a 54,000-acre wildfire near where people were camping in the northern part of the county in June 2018, the community moved back to the area behind the Durango Tech Center. 

When a Red Cross shelter opened at Escalante Middle School, campers were moved there by the county sheriff. Campers refused to go inside the shelter and opted to camp outside behind the school, Stevens said.

When the Red Cross shelter closed, Durango leaders offered another spot for camping, on city land near Elk View Cemetery. The property came with strict rules, including one that required people to take down their tents during the day, which led many campers to look elsewhere for a place to live. 

The city stopped allowing camping there in August 2018, and soon after, people chose to move to Purple Cliffs, a steep piece of unincorporated land near La Posta Road. The sheriff’s department quickly started receiving calls about trash, camp fires and disruptive behavior, Stevens said.

La Plata County’s commissioners held meetings to discuss unsanctioned camping at Purple Cliffs and ultimately decided to temporarily allow it “as a humanitarian response” since winter was rapidly approaching and there were no other immediate alternatives, Stevens said. 

But officials said they were worried about urine and feces contaminating the nearby Animas River. Naturally occurring hydrogen sulfide and methane gas were in the air. This was worrying to county leaders because at high levels, hydrogen sulfide can cause loss of consciousness and death and large amounts of methane can decrease oxygen in the air.

The area’s steep slope coupled with extremely dry temperatures were also a concern for county leaders who knew campers were using fires to stay warm. (Three fires started in less than one year while people lived at Purple Cliffs, Stevens said.)

Accumulating trash was also a worry, he added. A person at one of the former encampments on county land had been attacked by a bear in 2016, Stevens said, likely lured there by garbage.

There were also concerns about law enforcement officers being called away from the areas they were patrolling to respond to Purple Cliffs, which also wasn’t complying with state and camping regulations or the county’s land use code, Stevens said.

By then, people had built a community kitchen, showers, a library and designated spots for children.

“As a governmental entity, we would not allow this kind of land use anywhere else in the county without having the landowner go through a land use process, for all the right reasons, and here we were not following or comporting with our own codes,” he said.

In June 2022, the county finally decided to close Purple Cliffs. Stevens said the county partnered with local Manna Soup Kitchen, which operates a navigation resource center and a street outreach program, to provide food and hotel vouchers to people who were removed.

Because Purple Cliffs existed for so long, homelessness was “out of sight and out of mind” for many residents and city leaders, said Joel Berdie, a licensed social worker, who assessed people’s need for services in the months before the closure.

But when camping ended there, it quickly became evident homelessness is still widespread. 

Michelle Taylor, a former Purple Cliffs resident, walks to her hidden camping site late February in Durango. “How are you going to be clean to go to a job if you have no place? You got to be presentable. How are you going to function?” Taylor said, of challenges of going to work while homeless. ” I can’t even take a shower you know, at least at the Cliffs we had to shower out there.” (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Michelle Taylor, born in Durango in 1966 and raised in Ignacio on the Southern Ute Reservation, now sleeps in a tent at a hidden camping site. “We’re family. Even though when we’re scattered everywhere. We still look out for each other every day. Make sure everybody’s OK” Taylor said. “Just because they split us up, it doesn’t mean we stop caring for one another.” (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Nearly 200 people were homeless in Durango in 2019, more than double the number reported in 2018, according to the city’s strategic plan on homelessness.

A 2022 report by the local nonprofits Project Moxie and Neighbors In Need Alliance estimated 419 people were homeless in La Plata County.

City and county officials wanted to have an alternative camping site identified before Purple Cliffs closed, Stevens said. “That has not come to fruition, but we cannot allow Purple Cliffs to remain as the spot for dispersed camping in the county any longer.”

When sheriff’s officers showed up on Sept. 30 to permanently close the encampment, there were dozens of residents still living there, with nowhere else to go, Berdie said. On Sept. 2, a few weeks before the encampment closed, the city reported 82 people were still living there

“On the days that law enforcement was there to remove people from the shelter, we needed to complete two formal suicide assessments and one homicide assessment,” Berdie said. “People had plans and intent to kill themselves on-site if law enforcement approached their camp. The sheriff did respond to those incidents in a trauma-informed way and allowed us service providers to be able to respond.”

After the camp closed, Berdie said he spoke twice at city council meetings where he described people’s emotional response after the encampment closed and how the city’s no-camping ordinance means people are still being shuffled around Durango with nowhere else to go. 

“After Purple Cliffs closed, many dispersed to other areas on county land because they know the sheriff and county have been more understanding than the city,” Berdie said during a recent interview.

A city vulnerable to a lawsuit

Durango criminal defense attorney Brian Schowalter has represented clients pro bono who are homeless and have been ticketed under the city’s 2019 ordinance that states a person cannot lie, sit or rest on a sidewalk. Some of his clients have been ticketed for trespassing, maintaining a nuisance or occupancy of a motor vehicle. 

On Feb. 8, Schowalter sent a public records request to the city asking about two rarely used citations issued since January 2020 involving maintaining a nuisance and occupancy of a motor vehicle. 

The request turned up an incident list showing 11 tickets issued to five people. Seven tickets were given to one man living in an RV, who was cited almost exclusively for occupying a motor vehicle in public. All others cited are people who are homeless in the area, Schowalter said.

“They’re clearly targeting homeless people with those laws,” he said. “Think about how many times someone drives through Durango going to Mesa Verde, going to Utah, going to some destination — they park on the street, they camp overnight — none of those people have been cited.”

“We need to just have a little empathy,” he said. “There’s this idea that you can’t be left alone here. You can’t sit down on the sidewalk. You can’t camp in the woods. Stop citing people for living in tents, period, and give them a place to live.”

Schowalter said he is working to challenge the constitutionality of some of Durango’s ordinances and prove they are discriminatory. That information could eventually be used by other attorneys in a lawsuit, he said.

The ACLU of Colorado has been monitoring how the city of Durango is treating people who are homeless and is evaluating “any range of possibilities,” said Annie Kurtz, a staff attorney for the organization visiting Durango this week to interview people who are homeless and the advocates supporting them.

“From what I’ve heard, I think the city and the county are certainly vulnerable to a lawsuit,” she said in a recent interview. “The city has not been willing to engage on any policy solutions, short of, doubling down on policing. I am not seeing any real attempt at making Durango a home for people experiencing houselessness.”

The day Purple Cliffs closed, the ACLU of Colorado and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty wrote a letter to Durango’s mayor and city council and said, “It is cruel and unconstitutional to criminalize camping in public spaces when — due to city action — homeless residents have nowhere else to go.”

Rather than addressing the root causes of homelessness in recent years, Durango leaders have made concerted efforts to push people who are homeless out of public places and have criminalized their existence, the letter says.

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A University of Denver report found that between 2010 and 2014, Durango more than doubled the number of citations it issued under ordinances that primarily targeted people with low incomes, the letter states. For example, Durango stepped up enforcement of a statute that prohibits urinating and defecating in public, while the city’s public restrooms are typically closed from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m., the letter says.

“Additionally, until the ACLU intervened in 2014, Durango was actively enforcing an unconstitutional ordinance that prohibited ‘loitering for the purpose of begging,”’ the letter states.

Last year, with its camping ban already in place, Durango’s city council passed an ordinance that makes it illegal for any person to sit, kneel, lie down or recline in the downtown business district, the letter added.

Durango is not the only city in Colorado implementing policies that disproportionately affect people who are homeless and potentially violate their constitutional rights and freedom to be in a public space, Kurtz said. Cities all across the country are implementing laws that criminally punish people who are homeless for acts necessary for survival such as sleeping outside in a tent or using the bathroom outdoors.

In 2021, the Larimer County District court ruled that the city of Fort Collins violated the rights of one man who was sleeping in his car overnight at a designated rest stop when other shelter space wasn’t available. At the time, the man, Adam Wiemold, was a supervisor at Catholic Charities’ shelter. The facility’s fraternization policy banned him from sleeping there. He also couldn’t stay at the city’s other shelter, the Fort Collins Rescue Mission, because the shelter populations overlapped, according to the ACLU. Both shelters were also full on the night he was ticketed.

An ongoing court case against Boulder and its chief of police is challenging the constitutionality of the city’s camping ban. The city does not have enough available indoor shelter space at night for people who are homeless and strict program rules and other restrictions would further exclude people in need of a bed even if there were an adequate number of beds. During the day, for most adults, there is no indoor shelter option at all, according to the lawsuit. 

Under the camping ban, people who are homeless are left with no way to legally survive in Boulder, the lawsuit claims. In turn, their lives are in danger and they are excluded from the community, according to the lawsuit.

“I have spoken to so many people whose belongings were taken from them during a snowstorm. What are they supposed to do?” Kurtz asked. “A city can’t knowingly expose someone to that kind of danger. People are dying. This is real. When we take people’s only means of survival away from them and when we make it illegal to use those items, it can be a death sentence.”

As Durango navigates a housing shortage, police officers are “balancing compassion with accountability,” Deputy Police Chief Brice Current wrote in an email.

“This work can be exhausting for our officers because, to the public, we are either doing too much or not enough,” he wrote. “We focus on safety and are mindful of the balance between compassion and accountability. If you only have accountability, you will grind people down, and they will not get up; if you only have compassion, you will get chaos. We continue to find balance as we follow the city ordinances.”

The city’s response

Local providers have accused Durango police of destroying people’s tents and throwing away their belongings while they are at work or seeking human services downtown.

Current said Durango police have not cut or destroyed tents. If tents are abandoned, police place a notice on the tent stating it will be moved to a city yard within 72 hours, but officers usually wait a month to remove people’s belongings, he said in the email. If people can get to the city yard and accurately describe their belongings, they will be returned, he said.

A sign warning local law enforcement not to disturb a dispersed homeless encampment site outside Durango. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Encampments have been “devastated” by trash, wasted food and feces, Current said, causing safety and environmental concerns. Durango police only issue citations when adequate shelters are available and when people refuse services, Current said. 

“The bottom line is the city has always done extensive outreach with its partners to help the homeless when they need assistance with a variety of services, such as housing, mental health treatment, health issues, food and more,” Tom Sluis, spokesman for the city of Durango, wrote in an email.

“What we have consistently found is that many of the homeless consistently refuse the services provided, which is almost tragic when we are trying everything we can to help.”

For years, city leaders have had “extreme difficulty” finding land or business owners who will allow a sanctioned encampment, safe parking spaces or warming centers on or near their property, said Luke Alvey-Henderson, director of the Durango Public Library. However, the city denied a funding request from a local church to help support a warming shelter in November, according to the Durango Herald

More than 400 businesses and local residents also signed a petition demanding that the city create a safe place for people who needed somewhere to sleep during the winter after Purple Cliffs closed. Leaders of the affordable housing nonprofit Project Moxie helped gather the signatures, and said the city did not respond to the petitioners’ request.

La Plata County Commissioners expressed support for the funding but said housing people who are homeless in the city limits has, over all, been met with widespread opposition from community members.

“There have been about two dozen different locations that the city and county have considered,” Stevens said. “In every case, the obstacles and barriers to try to move forward were just too great and it was largely because of public opposition. It’s unfortunate. I think there are solutions. But it takes a community and it takes a desire to lead on the topic.” 

Librarian Alvey-Henderson said his research showed, in almost all other communities that have had success with designated camping areas known as safe outdoor spaces, warming centers and sanctioned overnight parking lots, there was a large available labor force, support from religious or secular nonprofits to provide land or staff and planning community support.

“We reached out to every single religious and secular organization in town and none were willing to partner on SOS, warming, or parking, or by providing land,” Alvey-Henderson wrote in an email. 

Still, Durango people who are homeless are caught between government entities — the city and the county — that can’t seem to find a long-term or permanent housing solution.

The city has publicly said it will not allow camping near a school, park, residential neighborhood, business or library, while county leaders firmly believe housing solutions must be implemented within city limits, or at least near Durango, so that people can access nearby jobs and vital services to get back on their feet.

In line with national trends, the lack of affordable housing in Durango is a major concern for families. Many people who are homeless are working full-time. And many local landlords refuse to accept Section 8 housing vouchers, Berdie said.

There aren’t enough community-based behavioral health services for people with the most acute needs and there are few nontraditional and overnight sheltering options for people in Durango, Berdie said. There are also no safe parking zones, no private landowners or government entities contributing to a safe outdoor space and no local substance use or mental health inpatient residential treatment program, he said.

There’s scarce transitional housing in the city and the community lacks street medicine, such as a physician or nurse who can deliver health care on the streets to manage chronic health conditions and create trust between people who are homeless and the public health system, Berdie added.

“Sometimes people going to jail is the only way to get inside,” Berdie said. Tormoehlen agreed, and said, this winter, she has contemplated stealing from local businesses, so that she would be sent to jail and have a warm place to sleep. 

“That would have never happened at the Cliffs because everybody just took care of each other whether they liked each other or not,” she said.

Thad Newhouse lived at Purple Cliffs for about three years and said, in Durango, residents don’t engage with him. “It’s almost like they’re trained to not look at you,” he said.

Moriah Herndon, left, and Thad Newhouse, former Purple Cliffs residents, now live beneath a tarp, a several mile hike away from a nearby highway. On Feb. 23, in Durango, the pair said they have had to continuously move their belongings and taking trips to town to restock on food and propane fuel. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Thad Newhouse, left, and Moriah Herndon have been living outside the city since the encampment closed in the fall of 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Changing demographics

Durango has changed a lot, especially since the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic hit the area. Anti-homelessness ramped up around then, as more people gained the ability to work from home and more people left bigger cities and moved to Durango for an idyllic vision they’ve planned, Schowalter said.

“This town is becoming sanitized and homeless people just don’t fit into this little utopia or whatever people think they’ve got here,” he said. “Visible homelessness makes people uncomfortable. And that’s, to me, the heart of it.”

There’s a “scarcity mindset” now in Durango, Berdie added. “By welcoming people in, who are of diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic demographics, some residents think that the beauty of Durango then somehow goes away,” he said. 

ACLU attorney Kurtz said she hopes people choose to become more educated about the “deep misperceptions of homelessness.” Homelessness is a systemic problem with many causes that ultimately equate to a collective policy failure,” she said.

“People think about the reasons to explain houselessness and their minds tend to go to these individualized explanations,” she said. “They’ll assume maybe someone has a drug addiction and that’s why they’re on the street or maybe someone has a mental health issue and that’s why they’re on the street. We overwhelmingly blame an individual for something, that when we look at the actual data, is explained by systemic problems like lack of affordable housing and wages that don’t keep up with housing.”

Homelessness has long been a divisive issue, but it does not need to be, Kurtz said. “No one wants people to sleep outside.”

Richard Dilworth, a local advocate for people who are homeless, chats with Susan Tormoehlen while giving her a ride, Feb. 23, in Durango. Dilworth drives people to court and to health care facilities and links people to housing services. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Tatiana FlowersEquity and general assignment reporter

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment reporter for the Colorado Sun. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, intense exercise, working as a local DJ, and live music...