By Bret Hauff
Amie Dieter and Andrew Miller are expecting—twins, and new neighbors.
The couple and others in a community of people experiencing homelessness live on a rocky hillside near the Animas River just south of Durango, Colo. In early April, as the nation and Colorado prepared for the impacts of the coronavirus, about 30 people inhabited the property—a population that has since swelled to around 50, according to the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office.
Locals call it the Purple Cliffs. Dieter and Miller call it home.
The couple climbs up the hill about 30 yards to their 14-by-17-foot canvas tent. Their dog, a pit bull terrier named DOG (pronounced DEE-oh-gee), bumps Dieter, who’s carrying eggs, as they ascend the foot-worn path on an April afternoon. She catches her breath as DOG licks the spoils of his boundless energy from the dirt.
Dieter and Miller have a bed to sleep in, food to eat, a solar-energy system for charging their phones and a community they can depend on.
Miller worked landscaping before the pandemic. But when the boss called it quits toward the end of March, he lost his job and the couple’s only source of income. They receive SNAP benefits (a.k.a. food stamps) for food, but work is hard to find as unemployment soars nationwide in reaction to the pandemic.
Volunteers and people living at the Purple Cliffs built portable hand-washing stations and a shower. The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office has provided dumpsters and portable toilets for people living on the hillside. As of the end of May, no cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the community.
Dieter sees an OB-GYN, who told her she is at the “lower end of the risk scale” if she were to contract the coronavirus, Dieter said.
But if they don’t have a place with running water by the time Salvador Andrew Miller and Claudean Rose Miller are due in August, the twins, by law, may be taken from their custody.
“My biggest concern is Colorado thinking that they're going to be able to step in and take my kids,” Dieter said.
An unlikely home
Dieter didn’t come to Durango looking to start a family. She left West Monroe, La. (where she was born and raised), and an abusive relationship, last autumn.
“I picked a spot on the map, bought a bus ticket and come here,” Dieter said.
Dieter met Miller at the Purple Cliffs. Both arrived as newcomers in late October. Miller, who is originally from the region, had just spent 40 days in the La Plata County jail for failure to appear, before which he was living unsheltered around Durango.
Dieter and Miller camped near each other and got to know one another. They shared Thanksgiving, and that night, together. Dieter learned she was pregnant in late 2019, just as the World Health Organization learned of “pneumonia of an unknown cause” in the Chinese city of Wuhan—a disease now known to the world as COVID-19.
But people living at the Purple Cliffs have stayed insulated against many of the impacts related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dieter and Miller say.
In September 2019, La Plata County authorized temporary use (there is no end date set, as of yet) of 200 acres of county property for people experiencing homelessness to live on, a decision prompted in part by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion a year before in the case of Martin v. Boise. The court found denying people experiencing homelessness the right to subsist on public property unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has since denied a petition to hear the case.
The approved sleeping site stays relatively clean, and people living in the community have developed trails to make traversing the steep hillside a bit easier, La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said.
“Many of the campers actually enjoy the location,” he said. “They know it’s sanctioned, they know they’re not getting messed with, and it’s given them a chance to kind of decide that becoming a community instead of a bunch of individuals is more beneficial.”
The community at the Purple Cliffs lives relatively isolated from other people. The property stretches about half a mile along a county road near the western bank of the Animas River south of Durango. It’s at least a one-mile walk to Walmart, the nearest place people living on the Purple Cliffs can go for groceries and other supplies. People living unsheltered there had worked jobs in Durango, but many positions disappeared as the region succumbed to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The community hasn’t been without resources. Churches, nonprofits, community organizations and regional residents have donated everything from food and water to propane and shelter, Miller said.
Someone donated four 16-by-20-foot canvas tarps, some of which have been used to shade a community kitchen and meeting area developed on the hillside. The community built temporary structures to support the tarps with guidance from Tim Sargent, a resident-turned-leader living on the Purple Cliffs.
“People desire community. We had a fresh start here, we were able to actually do it,” Sargent said. “With the COVID, we’ve gotten even tighter. There’s no place to go, nothing’s open. We can’t go to Walmart, they don’t have anything right now. It’s comfortable here.”
Dieter and Miller got a taste of living away from the Purple Cliffs after a donated weeklong stay in a local hotel, facilitated by local nonprofit organization Community Compassion Outreach. The stay was like a vacation, Dieter said; leaving the hotel “was like coming home.”
“We still got to struggle, we still got to get food and shelter,” Dieter said. “But we can wash our hands, take showers.”
While the couple feels relatively comfortable, the water and jugs donated for the community sink and shower are not enough to keep custody of her children, Dieter said. If they don’t find a place with access to a potable water system, they may risk losing custody of their children when they are born later this summer, she feared.
Leaving Purple Cliffs would be “one of the hardest things I’m going to have to do,” Dieter said. “This is the first time I’ve called any place home in years. To finally find a home, find a family—being told that you have to leave, it sucks.”
The couple has applied to live in at least three apartment complexes in Durango. They received expedited approval for a year-long emergency housing choice voucher and are looking for a place to raise the twins.
Dieter and Miller plan to keep their canvas tent at the Purple Cliffs after they find housing, they said. Getting housing away from the hillside doesn’t mean they won’t stay connected—the couple can even offer some of the people they’ve learned to call family a shower or a place for a warm meal.
“We have been able to establish a community, a home,” Miller said. “We’ve been able to get people off the streets if they want to get off these streets. We can provide for people who come out—it’s working.”
But as unemployment and housing instability continue to soar across Colorado and the nation, despite government efforts to re-open the economy, community leader Sargent says the people living at the Purple Cliffs are preparing for new arrivals.
“There are plenty of people in town who will lose their homes,” he said. “One of my motivations is to develop a community so that when they do show up, they feel like they’re not alone. I’d like to give them that opportunity to have a safe place to be.”