DENVER – The City of Durango has made sleeping outdoors, even without any cover or shelter, a criminal act for homeless residents who have nowhere else to go, according to a report issued this morning by ACLU of Colorado and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (Law Center) titled A Year Without Sleep: How the City of Durango has criminalized sleep for homeless residents. 

ACLU of Colorado and the Law Center analyzed citations issued by the Durango police between August 2017 and July 2018 for “camping.” The citations show that Durango police do not target enforcement of the city’s so-called “camping ban” against people engaged in traditional camping with a tent or tarp. Instead, enforcement is focused on people who are simply sleeping outside. “In short, Durango police have stretched the city’s ban on ‘camping’ to target a harmless behavior that homeless residents cannot avoid: sleep,” concludes the report.

“Durango claims that its enforcement of the camping ban is aimed at protecting the health and welfare of its residents,” says ACLU Staff Attorney & Senior Policy Counsel Rebecca Wallace. “The citations tell a starkly different story – one in which the simple and involuntary act of sleep by homeless residents is made a criminal offense. Over and over again, citations show police officers rousing unhoused people who are peacefully sleeping in an open space or park in the middle of the night, and then ticketing them for “camping” and forcing them to move on. Our question for city officials is: move on to where?”

Durango does not have enough affordable or accessible beds for its homeless population. In August, the City of Durango closed down its only authorized homeless camp without plans to establish another place for homeless residents to camp. Under pressure from the ACLU and the Law Center, city officials ceased enforcement of its camping ban in certain public spaces between sunrise and sunset. The report notes that this temporary moratorium “is insufficient to meet the City’s legal and humanitarian obligations to unhoused residents,” particularly those with disabilities, who need a non-temporary place to camp. The report cites a recent federal circuit court decision, Martin v. City of Boise, which found that the Eighth Amendment prohibits enforcement of camping or sleeping bans when there are insufficient indoor sleeping options.

The report gives numerous examples of officers informing unhoused people that sleeping is not permitted in Durango city limits. For example, one police narrative reflects that an individual was sleeping in a sleeping bag hidden behind trees on public land when officers roused him at 2:41 a.m. and informed him that “he was not allowed to sleep in the city limits of Durango.”

Chris Zeller, who is highlighted in the report, has lived in Durango for 52 years and became homeless as a result of his divorce and rising home prices. He says, “The camping ban is wrong. It’s a misunderstanding with the city. We just want somewhere to sleep. I think the City Council should try being homeless for a while. Pretend they lost their job, lost their home and pretend they can’t get into the shelter and then go camp in the woods. Before you can understand someone, you have to walk in their moccasins.”

“Housing is the solution to homelessness,” says Tristia Bauman, Staff Attorney for NLCHP. “It is ultimately cheaper and more effective than any other policy approach. Rather than stretch local law to minimally comport with the constitution, we call upon the city to chart a more compassionate, and effective, approach to homelessness.”

Read A Year Without Sleep:

Read the letter from ACLU and the Law Center from August 24, 2018 on Durango’s enforcement of the camping ban: