TELLER COUNTY, Colo. - You probably wouldn't expect homelessness to be an issue in small, rural Teller County but authorities are currently dealing with it.
On Wednesday, the Sheriff's Office and the nonprofit organization Focus on the Forest began cleaning a quarter-mile stretch of homeless camps on Shelf Road, also known as County Road 88, near Cripple Creek.
Focus spokesman Shawn Nielsen said crews removed around 5,000 pounds of trash and debris from the area -- including from dozens of old mining pits on the mountainside above the road.
"There are only four camps with six people living there in RVs," he said. "But a lot of the trash is from previous homeless campers. We are going back to finish the cleanup Friday because we barely scratched the surface of what's there."
The Sheriff's Office previously met with landowners affected by the camps and the group decided to take a more compassionate approach to the situation.
"We could go in and force them out and threaten them with a trespassing citation, but what good would that really do?" said Commander Greg Couch, of the Sheriff's Office. "We have to understand that not everyone can afford housing and some people are homeless because of circumstances beyond their control."
Campers are being allowed more time to leave the property and find legal campsites because they helped remove their own trash.
The county recently passed an ordinance banning camping in most areas except for legal campgrounds.
The Sheriff's Office also has assigned a deputy to be a homeless liaison and help direct the homeless find necessary services.
Nielsen and his wife, Eve Woody, started their group on Labor Day weekend 2016 after seeing a campground left messy.
"We wrote about it on Facebook, and got a huge response from the community," she said. "We've gotten donations from everywhere. We've cleaned camps on Gold Camp Road and Rampart Range Road."
Woody said homelessness and trash traditionally have been lesser issues in the county but have become more visible in the past year.
"Many of the people in our homeless camps work every day and have families," she said. "They can't afford to live in Woodland Park anymore because rents have increased."
Couch said illegal camping presents a public safety hazard.
"The trash dumping is bad enough because animals can get into it and spread it out," he said. "But campfires are one of the major concerns. If we come down too hard on campers, they may hide in the forest and continue using campfires. Then we don't know exactly where they are."
But the county still doesn't have a permanent solution for the growing homelessness issue.
"We may try placing dumpsters in areas where homeless people gather," Nielsen said. "There's always a chance they'll get vandalized but at least we'll know where the trash is, and that'll make it easier to clean up. Maybe making it easier for the homeless to get rid of their trash will discourage them from dumping and littering."
Woody said most of the land along Shelf Road is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, a local mining company and several private individuals.