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Trash is left behind at an abandoned campsite near the West Magnolia Trailhead in Nederland in 2017.
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For those experiencing homelessness, camping on public lands has become a popular alternative to sleeping on the streets or trying to find a bed in homeless shelters.

Going off the grid, however, presents a number of problems. First and foremost, those suffering from mental illness are not receiving any help. They aren’t able to access any of the resources Boulder County offers in terms of finding stable employment and housing. The perpetual use of campgrounds also increases fire danger, as seen with the 2016 Cold Springs Fire.

In the summer of 2018, The Nederland Interagency Council for Homeless Encampments, better known as NICHE, started a pilot program to address these issues and analyze the strategies and outcomes for providing human service to homeless campers on public lands. A bill to be considered in Colorado’s 2020 legislative session could encourage other communities to embrace similar initiatives.

“I just go to their campsites and touch base with them, find out what they need and offer resources, not just organizational resources, but where they can fill up their water for free or where they dispose of their trash and talk to them about wildfire prevention, wildlife interactions, and weather preparation,” said Claudia Schauffler, summer homeless advocate for residential encampments for NICHE.

“I’m not lecturing or being punitive, and they really respond to that. A lot of them would even help me clean up other campsites.”

Several have even volunteered to help out at local events once engaged.

In 2018, the U.S. Forest Service, Nederland Police Department, Nederland Fire Department, and Boulder County Sheriff’s Office estimated that 390 people experiencing some level of homelessness were camping on public lands around Nederland, only five of whom had been in contact with Homeless Solutions for Boulder County.

From April to October of that year, NICHE met with 175 of the campers to discuss wildfire prevention strategies and connected 64 to some kind of services, which helped 12 of them successfully find jobs.

In 2019, it was estimated that 550 people who were experiencing some level of homelessness camped on public lands around Nederland. This summer, NICHE successfully reached 313 of the campers, 93 of whom were connected to some kind of service, another 12 of whom were able to find jobs.

Over both years, NICHE was able to help 12 people find stable housing, which it defines  as housing for at least three months.

“Some of those services are as large as finding them a home and getting all the paperwork done so they can move in,” said Pastor Hansen Wendlandt of the Nederland Community Presbyterian Church, who heads up the NICHE project. “Some of those services are as small as small as getting them to a veterinarian, it’s childcare, it’s birth certificates, it’s IDs, it’s job training, it’s eviction services, it’s a whole list of different things.”

Partners at the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office also worked to better define campsites, install metal fire rings, and provide vouchers so that the campers can drop off their garbage at the Nederland Transfer Station and Recycling Drop-off without having to pay.

“There are still problems, but this created a real cooperative effort to find solutions,” Tom Sloan, the undersheriff for the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, said. “On the front end, we thought this was really an issue for the Forest Service or law enforcement, but we’ve found that this is a community issue and that we all have a stake in this at some level. It’s no one agency’s job to fix it all. I think that really took a lot of pressure off the forest service.”

After two years of proving the concept, member of NICHE and the Peak to Peak Affordable Housing Alliance, worked with State Sen. Steve Fenberg , D-Boulder, and Speaker of the House, State Rep. KC Becker, D-Boulder, to draft a bill encouraging other communities to follow NICHE’s example.

Titled ‘Homeless Outreach Programs to Reduce Wildfire Risk,’ the bill would create a working group to address the issues, discover hot spots and encourage other communities to work with homeless populations camping on public lands.

It would also create a grant program with $100,000 allocated each year to help other communities around the state set up similar programs.

“I do think the NICHE concept is helping and would support it at the state level from a fire reduction perspective,” Rick Dirr, chief of the Nederland Fire Protection District, wrote in a statement to the Wildfire Matters Review Committee, which approved the bill for introduction when the 2020 legislative session begins Jan. 4.

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