Where the sidewalk ends

Missy Votel - 05/10/2018

“Rough night up there last night, huh?” the well-meaning passerby inquired.

We were both on the Horse Gulch Road, he going up, me going down. It was a Saturday, and my scroungy old mutt, Bilbo, and I had just finished our morning loop.

I vaguely nodded, not having the slightest idea what this man was referring to. Typically, “rough night” conjured up images of closing down the Ranch, shots of tequila, unwisely partaking in a Swisher Sweets (or worse) with randoms. But as far as I could recall, I had done nothing of the sort the night before. And what did he mean by “up there?” Up where ... ?

And that’s when it dawned on me. It had poured rain the night before. The man had innocently – but wrongly – assumed I had spent the night outside. In other words, he thought I was a “Gulchie.” They were a common sight along the road in the morning or evening, bedrolls and backpacks in tow, as they made their way from town to tent, or vice versa.

True, I was no Coco Chanel – but then again, I was on a dog walk, not a catwalk. As for Bilbo, a huskie mix with a gimp leg who typically sported a few dreads, he wasn’t exactly Best in Show. Perhaps my attempt at boho chic had come across as hobo chic instead.

“B ... b... but,” I stammered, trying to set the record straight and explain that I, indeed, had a home. But the man was already gone.

I walked home feeling a strange mix of dejection, confusion and pride (hey, at least no one would ever accuse me of being vain). But, most of all, I felt grateful. Yes, I had always had a roof over my head, if not the most fashionable wardrobe. Which isn’t to say I didn’t have a small inkling of what it felt like to be transient. My first two years in Durango, I moved no fewer than six times. It got to the point where I didn’t even bother unpacking my boxes

Alas, living out of a cardboard box is a lot different than living in one. For most of us, there’s always a last-resort couch or floor to throw a Paco pad on. Heck, I once knew a guy who lived in a closet in a ski condo because it was cheaper than renting a room. Let’s face it, living the mountain dream ain’t cheap – and frankly, it’s often not all that dreamy either.

“I call it the mountain tax,” a friend once said, referring to the double whammy of high costs and low-wages.

In exchange for that, you get a friendly, quaint town, sunny days, endless miles of singletrack, a brew pub on every block, mountain views from your window, and a rip-roaring river right through town (most years anyway.) For most, it’s a worthy trade off.

Yet, it’s a fine line. I’ve seen firsthand how this trade-off can take a toll – especially when combined with addiction, illness (mental and physical) and just plain bad luck. People teeter precariously close to the edge; some falling off, others becoming completely unraveled, hanging on by a thread.

Fortunately for them, Durango has a safety net. A giving and compassionate community, a place to grab a hot meal, and somewhere to lay one’s head at night.

But lately, some argue that safety net has gotten too big.

“Durango’s just not the same,” I’ve heard more than one longtime local bemoan. “It’s changed.”

More often than not, the impetus for this conversation is the influx of homeless people around town. Granted, homelessness in Durango is nothing new – or at least for the 22 years I’ve lived here. But there definitely seems to be an uptick. It’s hard to go anywhere without seeing at least one, and sometimes several. One friend said she counted more than 20 homeless people the other morning in Schneider Park. She also watched as a family – presumably tourists – left the Holiday Inn for a walk down the River Trail and made an abrupt and hasty retreat.

For the record, “homeless” is used as a general term here. As we’ve all probably learned, there’s a spectrum, from truly destitute and downtrodden to what a friend likes to call “train kids.” There’s some who profess to prefer life on the fringe and living by their own rules while others perhaps are inflicted by an insatiable wanderlust and opportunism.

A Main Avenue business owner told me he has tried to employ the sidewalk-sitters outside his store with odd jobs. “I want to help, but after a day or two, they tell me they can make more money panhandling,” he said. Meanwhile, his business suffers as more people stay away from the main drag, especially after dark. “People just don’t want to come down here, they don’t feel safe,” he said.

And while I can’t say I’ve ever felt threatened by these people – I’m way more scared of running into a bear or mountain lion – I am, shall we say, more aware of my surroundings. (Then again, I’m a firm believer that no female should walk alone at night – no matter where she is.)

But that’s not to say I haven’t experiences of my own. Just a few weeks back, some derelicts relieved themselves on the hallway carpet and walls in my office building.

This was 6 p.m. on a Tuesday, mind you, while I was tucked away in my back office, thankfully oblivious. The cleaning woman who encountered them – not so much.

A few weeks later, I watched as a guy holding a “Hungry Hungry Hobo” sign was handed some sushi by a passerby only to promptly turn around and throw it in the garbage, mouthing a string of obscenities. (Guess he should have noted he was a “Hungry Hungry Vegetarian Hobo.”)

I’ve been addressed as “sir” before being hit up for money more times than I care to admit. I’ve seen a guy passed out on the sidewalk on my way into City Market and witnessed another getting busted for helping himself to two cases of Bud on my way out.

Needless to say, this raises a lot of questions (aside from why anyone would steal 3.2 beer.) Who are these people? Are they from Durango? Or, as some suggest, is the word out about our town? Are we becoming some sort of transient mecca where other towns like Albuquerque and Telluride bus their undesirables, as has been the longstanding rumor? Or are we just mirroring a larger, national trend?

I wish I knew (although my office window overlooks the Transit Center and I have yet to see any caravans disembark.) But what I do know is that yes, things are changing. They always are – change is inevitable. What we as a town – heck as a society – need to decide is if we want the change to be for the better or for the worse. And, more importantly, can we give our hearts without losing our soul?

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