A wheelchair-bound local homeless man was found preparing to hunker down for the night in a shed near the paragliding landing area of the Marolt Open Space about a week ago by a local resident who knew he needed help.
The resident called an organization that serves as part of the Aspen area’s last line of defense for people struggling with emergency situations — Valley Information and Assistance and the Aspen Homeless Shelter. The man was soon on his way first to the hospital, where he was treated for his hypothermic condition, and then to the Aspen Homeless Shelter’s day center in the Schultz Health and Human Services Building off of Castle Creek Road.
That the man was seeking shelter in a shed in a field at all is a consequence of there not being a full-time homeless facility in Aspen. The day center at Schultz closes at 8:30 each night, and overnight accommodations at St. Mary’s church aren’t available until Dec. 1.
“It’s hard to say good-bye to these guys when you know they are heading out to the ground somewhere,” said Vince Savage, director of Valley Information and Assistance, who also works with the homeless shelter.
To help the man, Savage reached out to the network of caring citizens and health and human services providers in the valley, and has found temporary accommodations for the man, whom he described as a longtime local who has fallen on hard times and poor health.
Tapping generous donations from the operators of the Mountain Chalet lodge, the man was put up for a few nights there in a wheelchair-accessible room that wasn’t being used. Savage has now secured grants from Pitkin County’s emergency fund so the man has lodging through the weekend in other hotels. After that, the organization is looking for a bridge of a few night’s accommodations before the critical Dec. 1 date.
“Most people in town have a pretty big heart about this,” Savage said, adding that there are many in Aspen who themselves are “only a few paychecks away from finding themselves in a similar situation.”
In Pitkin County, the health and human services department maintains an emergency fund that gets between $40,000 to $50,000 from the Healthy Community Fund property tax and other grants. Health and human services director Nan Sundeen said the fund is used for people who are hard up and in need of a few nights in a hotel, help with rent or heating bills, or medical services. People are limited to applying for such a grant once a year, and county staff also will work with them to see if they are eligible for other assistance programs through the federal government or elsewhere.
There also is a relatively new service that allows providers from Aspen to Rifle to collaborate on cases. Dubbed Collaborative Emergency Assistance Providers (CEAP), the service brings agency heads together for bi-monthly meetings and maintains an email list. When a case comes up, an email chain is started with people offering up whatever help they can give, said Kathy Lyons with Eagle County health and human services.
CEAP was first put into use in the aftermath of last year’s fire at the Seven Castles apartments outside Basalt, when 31 people lost their homes.
“It worked very well,” Lyons said. “Everyone was able to say, ‘Here’s what I can contribute.’”
Some $14,000 in cash was raised in response to that fire, and organizations from local restaurants to the Aspen Skiing Co. stepped up to help the victims; the SkiCo offered vacant units in some of its employee housing to help out.
“That’s one of the most exciting parts, the involvement of the private sector,” said Sundeen.
For Savage, one of the great things about working on social services in the valley is the ability to give individual attention to each case. In the case of the man found at Marolt, “He’s proud. He was going to find a place to live in a paragliding shed rather than seek us out and ask for help. But he’s looking a lot happier and healthier now.”