Working under a stated goal of ending homelessness in Pitkin County, officials have set the next community discussion on housing instability for Jan. 10 at Aspen Chapel.
The first meeting on the broad topic was held Oct. 22. Three draft goals emerged from the gathering, which was attended by over 60 government officials and other stakeholders, including law enforcement personnel, nonprofit directors and housing-challenged residents. The goals are: creating a community vision for sustainable, comprehensive services to end homelessness and housing instability; strengthening and improving the coordination of services for those experiencing housing issues; and creating what officials call an “asset map” of current services as well as the ideal services necessary to address future needs.
A survey relating to the goals recently was emailed to area stakeholders. The survey results will be reviewed at the Jan. 10 meeting. Other items on the agenda include receiving input on the goals and identifying future steps in the process, according to Nan Sundeen, director of human services for Pitkin County. Sundeen has been organizing the meetings on the latest housing initiative.
The survey asks respondents to identify their levels of support for the draft goals. Another question concerns the geographic scope of the project in relation to each goal and seeks input on whether the effort should focus solely on Pitkin County, the area from Aspen to Parachute or the entire Western Slope. Other queries call for guidance on whether certain types of facilities or services are needed or preferred, ranging from an emergency shelter that would provide referrals to support services, to affordable-housing units that allow longtime locals to experience independent living with access to built-in services handled by case managers.
The survey additionally asks if certain services should be offered within the community, including mental-health and substance-abuse treatment, employment counseling and social-skills education.
Organizers also want to create a small steering committee “to develop a strategic plan and begin to take action on our priorities,” the survey notes.
“The obligation could involve monthly face-to-face or virtual meetings, organization of quarterly community meetings and building relationships with key community partners,” the survey adds before asking for names and contact information.
There already is an entity in Pitkin County that addresses the needs of the homeless population. The nonprofit Aspen Homeless Shelter, which is managed by Vince Savage, operates an overnight facility from December through March, the coldest months of the year, at St. Mary Catholic Church. There is no local overnight shelter in the summer or off-seasons. The winter shelter takes in men and women who are 18 and older, and they must undergo a brief vetting process before gaining entry.
In addition, a day center, which is operated year-round at the county’s Health and Human Services Building near Aspen Valley Hospital, offers job-hunting assistance, computer access, showers, meals and other services.
The current round of meetings on housing instability and homelessness evolved amid suggestions that not enough is being done to tackle the issue on a year-round basis. Sundeen told the Aspen Daily News last month that county officials and others involved in the discussion simply want to determine whether there is community support for improving conditions for the homeless and other low-income residents struggling with housing.
In the same article, Savage questioned whether the county’s initiative is necessary, and said he fears the process could lead to facilities and services that have the unintended consequence of luring more homeless people from outside the area to Pitkin County. He spoke of how a year-round shelter and other expanded programs — despite the good intentions of those involved in the initiative — might create an “attractive nuisance” the community would be better off without.
Savage said last week that he will be a willing collaborator in the January meeting and that he hopes to provide a voice of reason with regard to any movement toward new facilities and services. He said he is still a bit wary about the sudden drive to hold discussions on the issue.
“I assume they want my input,” he said. “I’m happy to be involved in the dialogue.”
Savage said that over the past year, he has brought to county and hospital officials the idea of creating a facility for transitional housing in the “ambulance barn” near the hospital. A new facility to house the Aspen Ambulance District’s vehicles currently is under construction and will replace the 25-year-old structure in 2019. Hospital officials are said to be eyeing the older building for information technology department space.
County Manager Jon Peacock said recently that no formal proposal has been presented for new uses for the old ambulance barn. The hospital owns the land beneath the building and leases it to the county.
According to Savage, some officials have suggested that the hospital’s residential neighbors may not embrace the conversion of the nearby ambulance barn into a 24/7 facility for homeless transitional housing or emergency housing.
Savage doesn’t believe it would impact the neighborhood any more than the hospital already does.
“I think the idea of using the old ambulance barn for transitional housing should be brought back to the table, along with others,” Savage said.