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Homelessness and the National Forests

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Wildfire near Nederland_9_1468105558093_42111323_ver1.0_640_480

Given the vast domain of the national forests in many parts of the country and the limited resources to police them, it’s hardly surprising that the national forests have become a refuge for the homeless. This of course results from a whole array of public policy failures that lead to homelessness. It also causes a major number of new public policy problems, including wildfires, as the people of the Boulder area discovered earlier this year when a fire started by two homeless men who didn’t extinguish their campfire rapidly became scary before being controlled before it became a complete conflagration.

Forest law enforcement officers say they are seeing more dislocated people living off the land, often driven there by drug and alcohol addiction, mental health problems, lost jobs or scarce housing in costly mountain towns. And as officers deal with more emergency calls, drug overdoses, illegal fires and trash piles deep in the woods, tensions are boiling in places like Nederland that lie on the fringes of the United States’ forests and loosely patrolled public lands.

“The anger is palpable,” said Hansen Wendlandt, the pastor at the Nederland Community Presbyterian Church.

Some residents have begun taking photographs of hitchhikers or videotaping confrontations with homeless people camping in the woods and posting them online, including on a private Facebook page created recently called Peak to Peak Forest Watch. Some say the campers have cursed at them for driving past without picking them up, or yelled at them while they were cycling or hiking. They say they no longer feel comfortable in some parts of the woods.

But as a homeless man named Julian, 30, hiked down from the hills and into Nederland one rainy afternoon, guitar and knapsack slung on his back, he said a passing driver yelled at him to get out of town. He said he, too, felt uncomfortable and was heading toward Estes Park, Colo., then on to Oregon. He did not give his last name because he said he did not want friends and family reading that he was homeless.

Mr. Wendlandt serves lunch and hands out socks to needy campers every Thursday. But he has stopped provisioning people with blankets and sleeping bags, worried that what seemed like compassion could be exacerbating a problem.

It’s important to touch on one of these problems more specifically, which is the lack of affordable housing or any kind of meaningful planning in the wealthy mountain towns of the West, especially Colorado. The workers in these towns really have no place to go anymore. It’s not like in the days when Hunter S. Thompson was running for sheriff and a bunch of hippies with no money were supporting him. These towns are loaded and they have no place for the workers required to provide the their services. Some commute from less desirable and more polluted places like Leadville, but even those towns are becoming expensive. Homelessness and thus illegal camping in the national forests is a natural result. Yet good luck bringing up public housing projects in Vail and Aspen and Breckenridge. Any sort of affordable housing is just getting off the ground in those towns.

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