Homeless project

The former Aspen Ambulance District headquarters building is being proposed by the director of the Aspen Homeless Shelter as the site for a new year-round emergency shelter serving people with extreme housing challenges.

Pitkin County’s housing stability coalition — which met for the past 10 months and developed a mission “to end veteran and chronic homelessness” in the Roaring Fork Valley — has identified some short- and long-term goals.

The priorities were outlined during an Aug. 8 meeting of some of the coalition’s stakeholders, which total more than 100 people throughout the valley and include government workers, elected officials, law enforcement personnel, nonprofit leaders and others who are interested in creating a “continuum of services” for homeless individuals that would go far beyond providing a nighttime, seasonal emergency shelter.

Nan Sundeen, director of human services for the county, said the short-term goals include expanding and stabilizing case-management systems; providing safe, legal, healthy and dedicated space for an emergency shelter; and rapidly re-housing people who become homeless so that their shelter stays are less than two weeks.

“The long-term priority is to permanently house all veterans that are homeless by 2022 and permanently housing all chronic homeless by 2024 or 2025,” she said.

Sundeen said that overall, the discussions revolving around ending homelessness “are progressing really well. We’ve done a ton of work in less than a year, just creating the ideal ‘continuum of care.’ We have more than 100 stakeholders and three committees that are working on the goals.” 

The next quarterly meeting of all the stakeholders will be held in late October or early November, she said.

One aspect of the project, she said, involves coordinating plans with Garfield County and identifying areas of cooperation with regional governments and agencies. This spring, more federal grant money from Housing and Urban Development will be flowing through the state, and some of those funds may be applicable toward projects that promote housing stability, Sundeen said. 

“We’ll be well-poised with a plan and hopefully by then, some of our services will be tightened up and more available,” she said. “We’re sort of at the fine line between coming up with a good plan and creating change now, so that we’re serving the population that’s experiencing housing instability in a way that’s better, more thoughtful, more consistent and more compassionate.”

Currently, the area’s homeless are primarily served through the nonprofit Aspen Homeless Shelter, which operates a day shelter at the county’s human services building near Aspen Valley Hospital and also an overnight emergency shelter in the first-floor classroom area of St. Mary Catholic Church, on Aspen’s Main Street, during the winter season.

Dr. Vince Savage, director of the nonprofit, has proposed that in lieu of the seasonal winter shelter, a year-round facility could be established in the building some call the “Old Bus Barn” or “AmboBarn” uphill from the hospital. It’s the longtime headquarters of the Aspen Ambulance District, containing personnel space upstairs and a garage below.

The ambulance district has moved into a new facility — construction was completed just last week — that’s a stone’s throw away from the “Ambobarn.” A grand-opening ceremony for the district’s new headquarters is scheduled to be held on Monday afternoon.

Savage passed out copies of his proposal at the Aug. 8 stakeholders meeting. Savage said he has given County Manager Jon Peacock a copy.

The hospital and the county have a longtime arrangement over the land and the building. Savage said that with cooperation from both, his nonprofit could operate the day shelter and the emergency shelter in the former ambulance district building, and it would fit squarely into the coalition’s “continuum of services” model.

Savage was skeptical of the county’s efforts to organize the coalition last fall, but since early this year he has participated in meetings and offered input on ways the believes the homeless population could best be served. His detailed proposal not only offers thoughts about various aspects of the “continuum” model and how it relates to the nonprofit, but also provides schematic drawings of how the former ambulance district building could be converted, with the second floor containing more than two dozen bunkbeds to serve as sleeping quarters for the homeless.

The building also has enough space for an overnight supervisor’s room and a closet that could be remodeled into a women’s bathroom. The building would need an expanded kitchen and the addition of a two-story elevator to meet disabled-access requirements and to load food and other donations from the first floor to the second floor, the proposal suggests.

While the change in venue from the human services building and the church to the former ambulance district building would result in a “shrinking of space” for the day center, the proposal says, “combining all homeless shelter programs under one roof with dedicated space and removing virtually all conflicts with other entities sharing schedule and spaces would be a more-than-welcome freedom to arrange schedule and space to our program’s needs alone.”

Also, homeless people would still be able to utilize services at the county building given that the “Ambobarn” is located a short distance away, the proposal adds. Savage also lays out a financial plan for the would-be arrangement.

County Manager Jon Peacock, who discussed the coalition’s work at an Aug. 27 meeting in which Pitkin County commissioners met as the county’s health board, said he has not discussed Savage’s proposal with hospital officials. 

“No, we haven’t had a conversation yet,” Peacock said Thursday. “It’s important to note that there is a much larger conversation happening in the community through the housing stability coalition that needs to be concluded. Also, before any decisions are made about changed uses at the Ambobarn we are committed to a public conversation with the neighbors.”

Whatever happens with the “Ambobarn,” there appears to be a strong sentiment among county officials and others that the church’s days as a four-month winter shelter for the homeless are numbered. The church, which recently went through an extensive renovation, has agreed to house the temporary facility for the upcoming winter, but where the shelter will be located after March is not known.

Says Sundeen: “Some type of emergency shelter is needed here. St. Mary’s has been fantastic in offering the winter shelter and they’re willing to do it again and we are so lucky. It’s hard on the church and hard on the building. So we’re all going to keep looking at that, and see what our options are.”

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.