Around Durango, public agencies are cracking down on homeless camps to prevent wildfires, wildlife attacks and trash buildup.
But if the homeless can’t sleep outside, where can they go?
Ronnie Gialanella says the answer from the community has been clear: “There is nowhere you can go to be homeless. ... It’s a violation of civil rights.”
But he acknowledges homeless residents need to take more responsibility for their living spaces.
In June, he led the way to his former home behind the Durango Tech Center, about a mile west of downtown Durango, where ragged tents were interspersed in a densely wooded area, popular for its proximity to Manna Soup Kitchen and downtown. The heaps of trash smelled rank, and Gialanella expressed disgust for his former residence.
“In March, all the trash was just trickling down the mountain,” he said.
Residents had dragged bikes, food, stoves, sleeping bags and books up steep slopes to their campsites, then walked away.
Gialanella has chosen a homeless lifestyle, and he wants the freedom to camp on the land, but he is frustrated with his fellow homeless residents who left hundreds of pounds of trash.
“The people that are trashy are ruining it for the good ones,” he said.
The trash is not a new problem. The hillside behind the Tech Center, Overend Mountain Park, Horse Gulch, Animas Mountain, Smelter Mountain and Lower Hermosa all are areas where homeless people have camped and left a mess for public agencies.
From the spring through the fall, more homeless people need help.
During these seasons at the Durango Community Shelter, single men and families are turned away because there isn’t enough capacity, said Sarada Leavenworth, district director of the Volunteers of America, which operates the shelter.
But camping can be dangerous. If a crime happens in the forest, law enforcement may not be able to respond quickly, or there may be a delay in reporting because the homeless person can’t access a phone, said Dan Bender, spokesman with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office.
It’s also likely that children will be exposed to drug use, Leavenworth said.
“We do our utmost to make sure families and women are not camping in those areas,” she said.
Despite those efforts, the U.S. Forest Service has noticed an uptick in homeless families with young children this year, said Missy Carter, a Forest Service crew leader.
Cleaning up the mess
Just as Gialanella called for his fellow homeless to take responsibility, Manna Soup Kitchen and law-enforcement agencies began asking for the same.
As different agencies have enforced anti-camping laws over the years, camps have been pushed around through county, state, federal and private land.
This year, all the agencies including the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have been more active enforcing their bans on residential camping. The Forest Service closed Lower Hermosa to dispersed camping earlier this year, and the Bureau of Land Management also closed all of its land around Durango to camping.
After a bear attacked and injured campers near the Tech Center in May, Lt. Ed Aber with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office formed a small coalition that includes Manna, Trails 2000, Bear Smart and local law-enforcement agencies to help clean the area and work to educate the homeless population on how to protect themselves while camping.
“We have to do something about this, or someone is going to get killed,” he said.
In late June, when Aber asked Manna management to organize volunteers to clean up the camps, homeless residents helped to collect enough trash to fill a pickup 11 times, plus a full-sized dumpster. Many of the volunteers are part of a core group of year-round residents.
Aber said he sees the homeless residents as key to both protecting the land and addressing homelessness as a societal issue.
Every homeless person is facing a different set of circumstances. Some choose to live outside, some have fallen on hard times, others have a mental illness and have refused treatment, Aber said.
“People on the outside can’t solve a homeless person’s issues. They have to be part of the solution,” he said.
In La Plata County, efforts began with educational talks at Manna by law enforcement on why camping is illegal and the importance of keeping a camp clean.
Campers who are good stewards of the land and live well away from any trails will not give Sheriff’s Office deputies a reason to tag their camps if they are on county land.
“That message is getting out, and I’m seeing the results,” he said.
In recent visits to the area behind the Tech Center, Aber has found immaculate camps.
But still, cleanup efforts are ongoing at the Tech Center and Overend Park, with the help of volunteers, including homeless residents. Work is set to start at Smelter Mountain soon.
In early July, the Sheriff’s Office began tagging camps that posed a health hazard at the Tech Center. The tags give residents 72 hours to leave before facing a ticket and possible jail time.
While Aber does not want to leave the homeless with nowhere to go, he doesn’t support a special camping area set aside because it could become crime-ridden.
“I don’t know what the solution is, but I think there is a solution,” he said.
Accountability, empowerment and purpose
At Manna, the staff encourages clients to take more pride in their space, said volunteer coordinator Jason Cloudt.
The nonprofit recently instituted a new token system in which residents can complete a chore and earn tokens that can be redeemed for items and services such as sleeping bags, a shower or laundry. Residents can also earn tokens by bringing in bags of trash from the mountain.
The purpose of the system is two-fold, Cloudt said. He is hopeful residents will value the items more and feel like they have a purpose.
“What we want is people to be empowered,” he said.