FLAGSTAFF, AZ - Flagstaff's largest shelter for the homeless closed its nighttime services for the season Wednesday, meaning dozens are heading for the woods in and around the northern Arizona city in search of places to stay.
Facility Director Stephen Tomasello of Flagstaff Shelter Services said some people have found alternate housing, but most have nowhere to go.
"Most of these people are going straight to the curb. They're all going to the forest," Tomasello said.
Flagstaff bans camping, but some homeless people are nevertheless expected to camp within city limits to be near services, the Arizona Daily Sun reported.
Others said they have campsites beyond Flagstaff's borders picked out in order to avoid encounters with law enforcement.
The nighttime closing each spring is a budget reality for Flagstaff Shelter Services, according to Tomasello. With enough money, the shelter could stay open at night year-round.
"We need some major league funding," Tomasello said. "We need some major bucks."
The nonprofit continues to offer daytime services that include food, laundry, TV, computers and other services. The shelter houses 77 men and nine women every night. Tomasello said many residents count on the shelter as a place where they can feel secure while they search for work.
Homeless people camping in the forest are expected to build fires to keep warm as the nights are still cold around Flagstaff. This week, Flagstaff was expected to reach overnight low temperatures in the 30s. But with Arizona already in wildfire season, officials are concerned campers could trigger a blaze.
Officials in northern Arizona have issued fire restrictions about a month earlier than usual. Paul Summerfelt, wildland fire management officer for Flagstaff Fire Department, said various agencies have been giving presentations at homeless shelters on fire danger, sending out messages via social media and making sure equipment is ready and personnel are trained.
Flagstaff housing, fire and other officials discussed the possibility Tuesday of closing the Coconino National Forest this summer. That would eliminate another potential site for campers to turn to while the shelter is closed. In the past, city officials put up temporary shelters. Any possible closure was still more than a month off, Summerfelt said.
"There's a lot of reluctance to do that because of the enforcement nightmare and the huge impacts that happen on tourism." Summerfelt said. "It's not a decision made lightly."