High-Country Colorado Towns Wrangle Big-City Problems with Homelessness
DURANGO — From his vantage point in a homeless camp on a scrubby mesa above Durango, Corey Davis could look down this summer on what resembled a Western-themed diorama.
Tiny figures darted up and down Main Avenue as a coal-fired steam train chugged out of a historic depot trailing a black cloud of coal smoke. The red brick tower of the 131-year-old Strater Hotel pinpointed where Louis L’Amour wrote several of his classic Western novels, and where “saloon girls” in fishnet stockings served drinks in the Diamond Belle bar. On some quiet evenings, Davis could hear the “blam, blam, blam” of faux gunfights and see horses drawing a stagecoach through downtown.
“When I discovered this area, I loved it and didn’t want to leave. Everywhere you look you have something beautiful to look at,” Davis said, as he waved a hand across the town and its backdrop of mountains and mesas that jut and ripple on all sides.
But the city-sanctioned camp where Davis and about 30 other homeless people pitched their tents has been closed and scraped clean. A new ban on sitting or lying downtown is in effect. “No camping” signs have popped up in city parks and greenways. Davis and other homeless residents have had to scatter and hide, the victims of a crisis of homelessness — and some say heartlessness — in this tourist town.
Davis boarded a bus headed for Colorado’s Eastern Plains last week, while others searched for secluded spots to sleep — behind dumpsters, in the shadows of alleyway garages, in shrubs along the Animas River, or deep in the canyons of the San Juan National Forest.
Durango has been caught at the tough intersection of homelessness and tourism – a growing problem in many vacation hotspots. Homelessness has ticked up as destination-area living costs have stretched far beyond the wages paid for cleaning hotel rooms, serving meals and selling T-shirts.
The problem has increased in some of this country’s most scenic places, where tourists often don’t expect to see it. In Durango, visitors who come to ride the narrow-gauge train, have sepia portraits made in bank robber getups, and choose from more restaurants per capita than in San Francisco, have complained about the proliferation of homeless people and panhandlers.
Fixing that problem has left Durango and other tourist towns teetering on a constitutional line of trying to keep homelessness out of sight of visitors while not trampling on the rights of those without homes.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado recently warned Durango that it has taken a step too far. Durango’s latest attempts to rout the homeless and leave them with nowhere to spread out a bedroll or pitch a tent are “cruel and unconstitutional,” the ACLU said in a letter to the city.
Durango can be a difficult place to work and afford to live. The average apartment rent has risen 13.6 percent over the past year, to $1,300 a month from $1,120. The median home price has zoomed 5.2 percent in 2018 to $430,000. A buyer would need to make at least $90,500 to be able to qualify for a loan on such a home, but the median household income hovers around $57,000 and the per capita income sits at around $33,000.
The overall cost of living in Durango is 34 percent higher than the national average, according to tabulations by Sperling’s Best Places. Most of that is attributed to housing costs.
The spread of homelessness that tourists might take as a given in larger destinations, comes as a shock in this family-friendly, mountain community of 18,000 – a city that tourists keep financially afloat.
“Homeless everywhere,” wrote a disappointed traveler on TripAdvisor. “Is it safe to go there?” asked others. A Fox News report picked up by news outlets around the world in the spring of 2017 didn’t help. It depicted a Durango swarmed by pot-smoking beggars.
Even the homeless here note that people without homes have become a problem.
“This is a neat little town, but it’s overrun with homeless,” said 75-year-old Clarence Dobbs, with no irony, as he sat in the doorway of his tent before the city closed his camp, making his dinner of peanut butter on Wonder bread. His wheelchair was parked nearby.
Durango City Councilor Melissa Youssef framed it this way: “Homelessness is one of the most difficult human rights issues, and it’s right here in our face now.”
Homelessness grew into a full-fledged tourist-related problem in Durango several years ago. It had been troublesome before that, with homeless people camping along riverfront trails and in the vast public lands surrounding the town.
But that changed around 2015 when the city had to back off on a no-loitering crackdown under threat of legal action. That’s when homeless people and panhandlers, in large numbers, started sprawling on downtown sidewalks, sleeping in public bathrooms and begging for doggie bags outside restaurants. They included a mix of down-on-their-luck locals, American Indians who had abandoned impoverished reservations, professional panhandlers, veterans, the mentally ill, and the wanderers, like Davis, who say they just don’t do well inside four walls.
Durango and surrounding LaPlata County dealt with the problem for a time by creating camping areas for the homeless. This summer, though, a string of calamities turned homeless camping into a musical-chairs shuffle until it finally hit a dead-end.
A huge wildfire blew up in early June and closed a major highway into Durango. It put a weeks-long stop to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge tourist-magnet train. The Animas River turned black when rains finally came, and then there were mudslides. Oozing mud closed the highway — and the train — again in late July.
Those misfortunes drove tourist numbers way down and tanked sales tax more than 30 percent at some businesses, in addition to displacing the homeless.
Homeless campers who had been staying on county land above town for years were evacuated with the help of the LaPlata County Sheriff’s Office during the fire and moved to a Red Cross shelter.
When the immediate fire danger passed, the homeless weren’t allowed to return to their camp. More fires were a concern. And residents in a cul de sac of million-dollar homes built near the trailhead for the homeless camp had been complaining about thefts, trash and inebriated wanderers. One bloodied homeless man knocked on a door in the cul de sac looking for help in the middle of the night after a black bear bit his head.
The city promised to move the homeless campers to the site of an old radioactive mill tailings pile next to a dog park. But state health officials questioned the safety of people bedding down there and the city withdrew that plan.
The city then put up some orange plastic fencing, and deposited several portable toilets and a dumpster on a plot of land next to a cemetery above town. About 30 of the homeless were staying there before the city closed the camp in late August, leaving people with few options.
Homeless advocates complained that wildlife is treated better than the homeless; there are ordinances that criminalize harassment of deer and other critters while the city OKs the rousting of sleeping homeless people in the middle of the night.
“It’s not that we aren’t compassionate. But Durango is not in the business of running a tent city,” Mayor Sweetie Marbury said.
The city has not only criminalized homeless camping and sleeping. A “pedestrian safety” ordinance enacted in mid-July outlawed sitting and lying on sidewalks.
“It was not safe here. I didn’t like coming around a corner and tripping over someone or being scared out of my wits,” Marbury said.
With that ordinance in place, the only people sitting on Durango sidewalks at the height of tourist season were ice cream-licking tourists. But visitors can no longer sit on benches because the city removed them: the homeless had been using them.
Downtown business owners have marveled at the quick turnaround. The homeless sidewalk sprawl mostly disappeared. On a busy tourist day, only one homeless person, Michael Ford — known around Durango as “Gorgeous George” — was sitting in front of a downtown mall with his guitar. He was wearing a T-shirt with the message: “I don’t mean to offend you.”
“They don’t run me off because I am just out here spreading good vibes,” he said. But 15 minutes later he was gone.
Durango represents a more-visible microcosm of the homeless-vs-tourist problem across Colorado and the country.
Denver has been trying for years, with ordinances and fences, to clean up a heavy homeless presence on the tourist-heavy 16th Street Mall. Colorado Springs, which counted a record number of homeless this year, has been in a cat-and-mouse routine of dismantling homeless campsonly to have them pop up again.
Steamboat Springs last year began tracking homeless after a problem became obvious on the streets of the small resort town. More than 200 people were found to be without homes or couch-surfing. Recently, a homeless man died of liver failure where he had been sleeping in a public bathroom in downtown Steamboat. Telluride had to helicopter 8,500 pounds of trash out of a camp above the town several years ago and last month had to chase a group of homeless out of the town’s water-supply reservoir: they had been using it as a swimming hole.
Even Aspen, arguably the state’s richest community, has a homeless problem. A day shelter was opened to give the homeless a place to go besides the downtown sidewalks. An overnight shelter is open in the coldest winter months.
“We are hearing from communities all across the state that the visible homeless problem is increasing,” said Cathy Alderman, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “We are hearing from more and more that it has become a crisis.”
Tim Studer, who sells cowboy hats and sheepskin coats to tourists at a shop on Durango’s Main Avenue thinks more should be done for the homeless, including those working in restaurant kitchens, at hotels, on cleanup crews and on construction projects.
“This sure is a hard place to be in terms of the working poor,” Studer said.
Down the street, Marcela Reasner was taking in cash from a steady stream of tourists buying souvenirs at the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge depot.
She has been several steps removed from homelessness by living in an RV in a $1,500 a month space with her parents. It is 10 miles out of town.
“No way I can afford to live here,’ she said. “But I wouldn’t want to leave.”
At the other end of the spectrum, neither would Karyn Gabaldon, the owner of Karyn Gabaldon Fine Arts on a busy downtown corner. But she nearly did.
“It got so bad I was just about to sell my business,” she said from behind a desk in her airy, upscale gallery where the cost of a single painting could cover two month’s rent on a one-bedroom Durango apartment.
Gabaldon has owned her gallery for 38 years, but before the new sidewalk ordinance went into effect, she was having to call the police to escort her to her car at the end of the day. She was losing out-of-town customers who were telling her they wouldn’t return to Durango because of the influx of panhandlers. Her revenues dropped 50 percent last year.
Her business troubles are mirrored in places like San Francisco, Honolulu and Orlando. Tourists who come for escape and adventure are complaining that they don’t like seeing homeless people folded up in doorways, and drug syringes and feces littering the streets.
Many cities, including Albuquerque, Portland, Oregon, and Honolulu have started homelessness-abatement programs with promising names like “HomeNow!” “There’s a Better Way” and “A Home for Everyone.”
Teams of social workers are on the streets in San Francisco helping to direct the homeless to services. “Navigation centers” give the homeless, sober or not, a place to hang out during the day. Hotels have hired private security to shoo panhandlers away. None of it is not enough.
“Every day I hear complaints from hotel visitors. Every day,” said Kevin Carroll, director of the Hotel Council of San Francisco.
For the past three years, Albuquerque has been sending city vans to areas with panhandlers and offering them transportation and pay for day labor. That program is being held up as a model for other cities, including the home of Disneyland, Anaheim, California.
Anaheim police recently rousted 600 homeless people from the banks of the Santa Ana River. The city is now sending social workers into the streets to try to get the homeless into appropriate shelters or housing. Anaheim gives the homeless gift cards in exchange for day labor.
“There is no place where you can magically send people,” said Mike Lyster, a spokesman for the City of Anaheim. “We are never done with this problem. For every one you get off the streets, more come.”
Durango has little money for such programs, Mayor Marbury said.
With the drop in tourist dollars this year, a plan to hire a homeless coordinator has been delayed. The city has asked some of the 400 non-profits in the community to come up with solutions to the homeless problem. Some of them already offer an array of health and counseling services, a shelter, transitional housing and subsidized housing, but the housing is either full or only for the sober. There is a long waiting list for subsidized housing. One church is looking to buy a plot of land for a tent camp. Another is pursuing a tiny home development.
But these ideas are running up against not-in-my-backyard sentiment. A mental health provider is heading up a task force trying to find a solution. But nothing concrete is happening yet.
Ken and Arlys Hanson of Minneapolis had no complaints about homelessness as they climbed down from a narrow-gauge train ride through the mountains recently.
“We’ve not experienced anything bad from people. And we think it’s gorgeous here,” Ken said.
But making the homeless problem out-of-sight does not mean it can be out-of-mind for the City of Durango. It could face legal challenges for failing to provide any camping options for those without homes.
“It’s a reality that a lot of people even working full-time in these towns can’t afford a home. And these sweeps and confiscation of belongings and making people so uncomfortable they move on, that is not helping to solve the root causes of homelessness,” said John Krieger, a spokesman for the ACLU of Colorado.
Corey Davis said Durango’s homeless folks are in dire straits. Some, like him, have been forced to move on — and to become another city’s homeless problem. The remainder – if they aren’t sleeping in vehicles or couch surfing, are dodging sweeps by law enforcement and drone surveillance in the woods.
Groups of them congregate every day near Manna Soup Kitchen, which has been a lifeline aid point for the homeless at a site above town for 16 years.
Manna offers showers and a room for counseling. It dispenses bus tickets and gas and grocery vouchers. Homeless clients tend small plots of vegetables out back and to pick up free produce each week. They can attend a culinary program at Manna where they learn skills that can lead to jobs: 46 have graduated from this program and the majority of those work in Durango restaurants.
But the gathering of homeless at Manna serves as a reminder that there are no easy answers to Durango’s complex problem of homelessness.
Shawn Agoodie from the Navajo Nation in Arizona was eating Cheerios from an oversized bowl on a summer morning as he explained that he planned to attend the culinary arts program.
“I’m not sure when I will sign up,” Agoodie said.
Roman “R.T.” Little Ben, who sported a backward baseball cap and glasses that slide down her nose, also came to Durango from the Navajo Nation. She said she was looking forward to a time when she can work again. She lost her pharmacy technician job, her home and her car following a DUI arrest. She had a black eye delivered by someone she says was offended by the fact that she is a lesbian. She admitted that a fresh start is a stretch.
“Being sober and homeless doesn’t work very well together,” she said.
Davis admits his new destination at the end of his bus trip is a temporary fix. He plans to stay with friends who have an apartment lined up — for two months. After that, he doesn’t know. He said he needs to develop some stability before he can plan into the future.
“I could possibly end up back in Durango where it’s so beautiful,” he said. “I just don’t know.”
Scott DW Smith, a Denver, CO native, has called the San Juan mountains surrounding Durango home for most of his life. Creating photography has been a lifelong passion and successful career for the past 25 years. A focus of deeppowdersnow, Colorado environments, creative local entrepreneurialism and genuinely honest emotions, are prevalent in his work.
Co-published with The Colorado Sun.