Horse Gulch Blog

Watchdogging for the greater Durango area

17 Dec 2016

Ella Vita Court cul-de-sac to remain as trailhead following “Homeless Highway” crimes

Posted by Adam Howell


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A trailhead at the cul-de-sac of Ella Vita Court dubbed by neighbors as the “Homeless Highway” will be rerouted to provide greater separation between two recently built homes and the vagrant drunks headed to and from their illegal campsites.

People walk up the trailhead at the end of Ella Villa Court. Currently, the trail lays by the driveways of two homes at the cul-de-sac, but will soon be rerouted to reflect the language of a trail easement signed Dec. 5, 2016.

People walk up the trailhead at the end of Ella Villa Court. Currently, the trail lays by the driveways of two homes at the cul-de-sac, but will soon be rerouted to reflect the language of a trail easement signed Dec. 5, 2016.

In addition to homeless people, a broad spectrum of others on foot or bicycle access public land from this undeveloped trailhead that sits at the convergence of the Spirit Trail, the Tech Cutoff Trail and Ella Vita Trail.

It’s a convenient trailhead for many people in Durango due to its close proximity to multiple neighborhoods and the downtown area.

For homeless people that are supported by their free meals at Manna Soup Kitchen, the short hike to the soup kitchen from their campsites and the trailhead is a boon.

Above the trailhead, the Tech Cutoff trail is the most popular for homeless vagrants who are traveling to city, county and private lands above the Tech Center where they camp out illegally. Most popular for the mountain bikers, hikers and runners who use the trailhead is the Spirit Trail and Ella Vita Trail.

After around five incidents at or near the trailhead with people that involved calling the police, homeowner Matt Vincent reached out to the City of Durango’s Parks and Recreation Department, asking them to relocate the trailhead to an area closer to the soup kitchen. This would have involved closing the existing trailhead, and then routing the new trail to pop out at the cemetery above the soup kitchen.

This request to close the existing trailhead met resistance.

Since the trail easement of the existing trailhead is technically on Middleton’s property, it was Middleton’s request for a permit to put up a six-foot-tall fence next to the existing trail that precipitated a deal that was brokered by Community Development Director Kevin Hall to instead move the trail, said Hall.

Trail easement for Robert Middleton and the City of Durango.

Trail easement for Robert Middleton and the City of Durango.

“We started looking at it and we realized very quickly that this wasn’t a good solution to be separating the trail users from his property. It obstructed sight-line distances, but it also created a situation where you don’t know what’s going on on the other side of that fence,” said Hall. “I was concerned that it was also creating a situation where ‘this is my line in the sand, and I don’t care what’s going on over there’. It’s just not a good entrance to a park to have it that way.”

As a compromise, the new trailhead will be moved following the new Trail Easement Agreement that Middleton and the City of Durango signed together on December 5. It means that the existing trail that lies next to the homes of Middleton and Matt Vincent will be moved about 20 feet away to the south side of the ditch, most likely by Trails 2000.

Moving the trail to the south side of the ditch will allow Middleton to replace the existing trail corridor with trees and shrubs, said Hall.

Also part of the agreement was the requirement that Middleton pay for a curb cut out in the cul-de-sac for the new trail head.

Crimes related to Homeless Highway on Ella Vita Court

Since moving into their homes at the end of Ella Vita Court this year, Middleton and Vincent have seen their fair share of shady behavior.

Drunks and criminals traveling through the neighborhood have created a somewhat dangerous situation for Vincent and his family who recently moved into their new home by the trailhead, Vincent said in a letter to the City.

“It’s the disrespectful disregard for our quality of life and where we live from a lot of the groups of people,” Vincent said in an interview with me. “When you see a group of 5 to 6 people stumbling up the street drunk, it’s intimidating, and that part I didn’t expect to see, that’s for sure. A group of five or six mountain bikers riding up the street or hikers behaving themselves, that’s not intimidating.”

img_5307In 2016 there were seven relevant police reports from incidents that originated at the end of Ella Vita Court, according to police records provided by the Durango Police Department.

Among the offenses reported were acts of burglary, assault, assault intimidation, menacing, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, domestic violence, criminal impersonation, violation of restraining order, violation of bond conditions, and fugitives of justice that were arrested for warrants.

On multiple occasions, suspects were apprehended at Manna Soup Kitchen after verbal confrontations with Middleton or Vincent, police records show.

One confrontation occurred when Vincent asked a Native American woman named Wilhelmina Whitewater to leave the area after she allegedly kicked and yelled at someone who was laying on the trail by Vincent’s house.

In an explosion of racial tension, Whitewater allegedly said something to the effect of “Fuck you this our land, and then called Vincent and his family “white niggers,” the officer’s narrative says.

img_5254“That was a little unnerving,” Vincent later said about Whitewater’s response.

Feeling attacked, Vincent called the police.

After investigating Vincent’s story, police tracked Whitewater down at Manna Soup Kitchen the next morning, where she denied saying profane things to Vincent, yet was cited with Disorderly Conduct.

On a recent Saturday, Vincent said that he went outside and found a woman passed out drunk on his doorstep at 5:30 in the evening.

Vincent did not want to share video of the passed out woman on his doorstep with this blogger, fearing that it could potentially come across as racially biased.

Even more recent, he said there was a group of eight people at 3:30 in the afternoon passing a bottle around, taking shots in his driveway.

Ella Vita Police Reports from 2016–CLICK HERE for PDF.

Homeless camping on La Plata County land

In recent years, I have observed the increasing traffic of homeless people traveling from Manna Soup Kitchen up the hill onto public and private lands.

Some people camp on City of Durango land, others on La Plata County land, and a few camp out on Francis Garcia’s land.

On City and County lands, camping is illegal per ordinance. The City enforces their camping ban when they know of enforcement action that can be taken.

A tag left at an abandoned homeless camp by the La Plata County Sheriff's Office outlines violations.

A tag left at an abandoned homeless camp by the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office outlines violations.

On the other hand, the County Sheriff Sean Smith is selectively enforcing La Plata County’s camping ban ordinance based on a set of conditions that need to be met by the campers who wish to be in compliance so that they will be allowed to camp on a specific piece of county land above the Tech Center and City land.

Based on what the written notices that the Sheriff’s Office leaves at non-compliant camps, those violations may include:

  • Out of Bounds
  • Camp too large
  • Trash
  • Food
  • Crime issues
  • Too close to trails
  • Fire violation

Smith acknowledges that this is a social experiment, and never thought when he was running for sheriff that he would some day be researching portable composting sawdust toilets.

Smith discussed the issue with the City Council and other City Officials at a Study Session in November, where he said that the questionable criminality of people sleeping on public land is currently being arbitrated by a federal court.

As a result, Smith’s refusal to spend an exorbitant amount of time and resources kicking campers off County land and hauling their trash out has City officials and Ella Vita residents upset.

“What’s happening is we think is we have a public health issue because there’s trashing, fires, and defecating on our land,” Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz told the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board in November.

City Councilor Sweetie Marbury also feels that the solution to this problem should come from better enforcement on behalf of the County Sheriff’s Office.

Also concerned with the impacts to public land above their neighborhood is Ella Vita HOA President Paul Marusak, who echoed the concerns that Vincent had with the County Sheriff’s decision to allow people with compliant camps to remain in the designated area on county land.

“We would prefer for our street to not be the focus of any blog post or articles about the greater issue of homeless camping and transient concerns,” said Marusak. “If you really want to get people’s attention I think you should focus on the disaster in the county’s designated camping area or Schneider Park.”

“It is a public disservice that city and county law enforcement has backed off from enforcing littering, drinking, and open fire laws, let alone the camping ordinances,” said Marusak.

Two homeless people who live on County land that I talked to are looking for permanent housing in Durango. The cost of housing was their biggest hurdle, and both said that they eat at Manna Soup Kitchen every day.

Manna Soup Kitchen

Just down the street from Ella Vita Court and the undeveloped city, county and private lands where homeless people camp out is Manna Soup Kitchen.

Manna Soup Kitchen offers services such as free meals to anyone who walks in the door, in addition to culinary training to people who are trying to find work in the food service industry, says Manna Soup Kitchen’s Executive Director Kathy Tonnessen.

Since Manna started its culinary training program, it’s had 32 graduates in 5 semesters, of which 24 obtained employment in the food service industry, said Tonnessen.

img_4059Aside from its accomplishments, Tonnessen acknowledges the impacts that some of its clients have had on the surrounding community.

Tonnessen said that she has heard the stories and seen the videos of some of the people that are intimidating neighbors on Ella Vita Court. The stories don’t always get reported to police, she said.

“A soon as something happens, call the cops, because that’s the only way we’re going to put, in my opinion, a stop to it,” said Tonnessen.

Manna Soup Kitchen has also helped out with group clean up efforts of trashed out camps on public land, she said.

“That’s not our responsibility, but we absolutely want to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem. So we have cleaned up camps. We have been with the Sheriff every time they’ve cleaned up. We’ve had them on our own,” said Tonnessen. “What we want to do is get it so that the people that come here want to clean it up. So we always have clients with us. They’ haven’t initiated it themselves yet. But you know they have to realize that if they want to be a part of the community then they have to be a part of the community in all ways and that’s partly being responsible for where you live.”

“We’ve also organized groups to go down to Schneider Park, and clean up, because so much trash gets thrown out,” said Tonnessen. “It just breaks my heart.”

“We also have this token program. In order to get anything besides a meal–to get a shower, or do your laundry, or to get a gas voucher, or a clothing voucher–you have to do a chore here. That’s to create accountability,” said Tonnessen. “One of those chores is to clean up trash on Ella Vita and Avenida Del Sol.”

At recent City meetings, myself and others have asked that Manna Soup Kitchen become more involved in pressuring their clients to become more self sufficient, productive members of society.

“I totally understand why people think it’s Manna’s fault because we give free food away. But you have to go deeper than that,” said Tonnessen. “Seven people shouldn’t ruin it for a hundred fifty that use the service every day. It’s not our place to judge someone, whether or not they should be eating here. However we do judge them about the alcohol and the drugs, because that doesn’t make it safe for people. If you want to use the services, then you need to come sober. If you come intoxicated or on drugs, we give you a sandwich, because I think that’s one of the things you need when you’re intoxicated is food. And we say you’ve got to leave the property. And if they do it again they’re kicked out for two weeks.”

Over time, Tonnessen wants Manna Soup Kitchen to become part of a broader community-wide solution to helping its homeless population.

“The question is what is our whole country going to do about it,” she asked.

This blogger lives in a home in the neighborhood by Manna Soup Kitchen and the Ella Vita Subdivision.

Perigrine Creek Boundary Adjustment

Perigrine Creek Boundary Adjustment

Photo courtesy of Paul Marusak.

Photo courtesy of Paul Marusak.

Photo courtesy of Paul Marusak.

Photo courtesy of Paul Marusak.

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This is a view from above of the county land where clients of Manna Soup Kitchen live if their camps are compliant with Sheriff’s Office guidelines.

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A new Trail Easement Agreement between Robert Middleton and the City of Durango will slightly reroute the trail across this steep Mancos Shale slope on the other side of the ditch. Some of the reroute will traverse a more moderately-angled slope.

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An illegal camp left abandoned on La Plata County land is tagged by La Plata County Sheriff’s Office.

 

Green flags represent the new trail corridor at the top of Ella Vita Court.

Green flags represent the new trail corridor at the top of Ella Vita Court.

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