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Fire Dangers Force Homeless Out Of Arizona Forest


The danger of fire prompted the U.S. Forest Service to close parts of the Coconino National Forest in Arizona. This precaution has affected more than tourists. It has also flushed out a population that many of us did not realize was there. Homeless people can legally stay in a national forest for weeks and some do. Now, homeless inhabitants are being steered out of the woods and into shelters. From member station KNAU, Aaron Granillo reports.

AARON GRANILLO, BYLINE: There are no solid statistics on how many people live in the national forest. But in Coconino County, the state estimates nearly 670 people are homeless. About a quarter of them come to Flagstaff Shelter Services for help.

ROSS ALTENBAUGH: This is where sort of everybody comes in at night, lines up to get access to essentially a lottery system for beds. It's a true emergency shelter.

GRANILLO: Ross Altenbaugh is executive director of the shelter, one of the largest in northern Arizona. She says the facility has been at capacity since the forced closures took effect last month.

ALTENBAUGH: Including the families, we're talking 50, 60, 70 more people a day. We've seen over 10 families in the last six days that need shelter. That's atypical for our program.

GRANILLO: Altenbaugh has teamed up with local churches to set up overflow shelters. She's reached out for extra donations, everything from snacks and blankets to diapers and formula. Law enforcement is also helping.

ALTENBAUGH: We've spoken with the police department about that they don't want to be criminalizing homelessness, and so if they find people, they want to get them to us.

GRANILLO: The police and the Forest Service say they do not target homeless encampments but do have to enforce current closures and fire restrictions. Since they took effect, officers have cited at least a dozen individuals for residence violations. It's a steep penalty, one that James wants to avoid. He didn't want to give his last name because he'd been living in the forest near Flagstaff for longer than allowed. He's been homeless for about six years.

JAMES: So I said, OK, I'm going to get my tent all taken down and everything because I don't want to get no fines. I don't want to go to jail.

GRANILLO: He's at a shelter now, but with only nine months sobriety, he says it's not an ideal environment for him.

JAMES: People drink outside, and they sneak it in here, and they're drunk, and I usually avoid them. But camping was really nice, be myself and thought about a lot of things, my future, what my goals are going to be.

GRANILLO: His ultimate goal is to work himself out of homelessness. For now, the shelter is one of the only options for James and hundreds of others while forest closures remain in effect. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Granillo in Flagstaff.


Aaron Granillo