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People buy cheap land in the rural West, then live unsheltered on their own property

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

America's affordable housing crisis looks different in different places. In the rural West, it often hides along the back roads of sparsely populated counties, where land is still cheap and people live in whatever makeshift dwellings they can put together. Dan Boyce of Colorado Public Radio has this report about people living undersheltered in their own property.

DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: In many American cities, dire poverty is visible - right? - like this prominent bike trail I'm on in downtown Colorado Springs. Across Fountain Creek for me, I see a homeless encampment, several tents and scattered trash. Now, for years in his 40s, Jim McKinney was living on and off the streets in Denver just like this. He says he was what they call in Alcoholics Anonymous a low-bottom drunk.

JIM MCKINNEY: They say you have to hit rock bottom. I kept breaking through bottoms.

BOYCE: He's been sober for a decade now, but a life roughly lived left him all broken up. He's too disabled to work. There's no way he could afford living in the city. So a few years ago, he scraped together $13,000 with help from his parents and bought five acres way up in the mountains, about 120 miles from Denver.

MCKINNEY: I can flip this on first thing in the morning, and it'll take the chill out of the air because I don't run the heat all night.

BOYCE: His house, if you can call it that, is a dirt pit dug into a hillside fronted by two walls of sun-bleached aspen logs.

MCKINNEY: I've got aspens right on the other side of the hill here.

BOYCE: The roof is nothing but canvas tarps and blankets. He has little windows cut into the logs, a wood burning stove inside. It looks surprisingly similar to a 19th century Western homestead, with the life style to match.

MCKINNEY: I mean, honestly, yeah, I'm definitely scratching out a living.

BOYCE: McKinney's income consists of $800 a month in disability payments from the federal government. And many of his neighbors have it much worse.

TOM MCGRAW: A lot of people are out here solely because of the fact that they're broke.

BOYCE: Park County Sheriff Tom McGraw sees a lot of that. He patrols this rugged and empty country. It's about 9,000 feet above sea level. Housing in his jurisdiction is a tale of extremes. Existing homes are very expensive. Construction costs are some of the highest in the state. But there are many small, remote plots of land that are extraordinarily cheap.

MCGRAW: Out here where we're going to, you can probably buy an acre of property for $5,000 to $10,000.

BOYCE: Not far from McKinney's homestead, McGraw points out places people try to shelter themselves.

MCGRAW: See - over here you got pallets set up. This was probably some sort of a campsite at one time.

BOYCE: We see across the landscape rusted RVs, teepees, shipping containers and unfinished one-room shacks. McGraw says desperate people are pulling together whatever they have, buying these cheap, barren plots of dry grass without understanding what it is they now own.

MCGRAW: When people move out here to this area and they're not totally prepared, they're not going to make it.

BOYCE: Miles from cell phone service or utilities, no electricity, no running water, no sewer.

MCGRAW: We've had so many examples, so many cases where we go out to these places, and they've got 5-gallon buckets sitting all over, and they're filled full of human waste - or 55-gallon drums filled with it.

BOYCE: McGraw says it's not only disturbing and unsanitary. It can be really dangerous. This time of year, temperatures regularly drop into the double digits below zero. His deputies responded to a call of a woman beaten by her husband last winter. They found him living in a garden shed from Home Depot.

MCGRAW: When we got there to arrest him, there was two babies, you know, sitting in cribs right next to the fireplace. I mean, he was keeping them warm, but the conditions were just horrible.

BOYCE: None of this is legal, even if the property is legally owned. County ordinance prohibits living any longer than a couple weeks on private land without a residence that meets basic building codes, in the colder months anyway. But Park County is far too cash-strapped itself to keep up with the violations out here. Jim McKinney is still not taking any chances. Inside that homestead, in that hole dug into the hill, right by the front door, he keeps a stack of papers, signed permits and schematics for the small, permanent home he's slowly building on his land.

MCKINNEY: You know, this comes from the engineer here with his stamp.

BOYCE: He looks for the best deals he can find on materials. He works on the house for as many hours as his back will allow, finishes the day in a plastic lawn chair on the hill.

MCKINNEY: It's peaceful and quiet and - I mean, the sun sets right between the - that’s the divide, all these peaks way out there. I mean, it's just beautiful.

BOYCE: It is a million-dollar view, and it belongs to him.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce in Park County, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.