Homeless Population Count

Jay Lefebre peers under the Interstate 25 bridge over the North Platte River on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018 in Casper, Wyoming while volunteering for an annual survey of the city's homeless population. Information gathered will become part of the national point-in-time count, which serves as a benchmark for gauging the extent of homelessness. (Alan Rogers/The Casper Star-Tribune via AP)

Community discussions have been underway on the topic of “housing instability” in Pitkin County amid suggestions that not enough is being done to tackle year-round homelessness.

About 60 local stakeholders, including representatives of Pitkin County and Aspen government, law enforcement, area nonprofits, housing-challenged residents and others attended a meeting last month at the Aspen Chapel to discuss the issue. The meeting was called by Pitkin County human services director Nan Sundeen.

The chapel served as the temporary home of the Aspen Homeless Shelter last winter during renovations of St. Mary Catholic Church, the shelter’s usual spot from December through March each year. There is no local overnight shelter in the summer or off-seasons.

The result of last month’s gathering, which the county says was moderated by a third party, was the creation of three “draft goals” identified by Sundeen and others. One stated goal, Sundeen said, is to “create a community vision for the sustainable continuum of support to end homelessness and housing instability in Pitkin County.”

While the meeting was open to the public, it was not publicized, and local media was neither notified nor invited. Sundeen said arrangements came together at the last minute and there was no concerted effort to keep reporters away from the discussion.

Sundeen said earlier this week that while there is talk about improving services for Pitkin County’s homeless population, including the possibility of an overnight facility in the non-winter months, nothing has been decided. A second meeting was to be held in December, but it has yet to be scheduled. Officials say it will probably be slated after Jan. 1.

The meeting focused on “all kinds of housing instability,” Sundeen said. Low-income housing, or the lack thereof, is what many residents and officials have determined to be the top problem facing the county, she said.

“Honestly, I don’t know where this is going,” she said. “But what I can tell you is that no matter where I go, people tell me housing is our number one biggest social, economic, livability issue in Pitkin County. This is sort of the beginning of looking at how we even approach this topic.”

Sundeen said a lot of momentum resulted from the first meeting. “People really liked the meeting for the most part. We got a lot of positive feedback. Our intention is to move forward with all the partners to find sustainable community solutions. It [relates] to the concept of, ‘it takes a village,’” she said.

While there are numerous facets to the housing issues the community faces, a possible starting point for further discussion and action may be the need for more homeless services and facilities, she said. The purpose of the discussions has been to determine whether there is community buy-in for improving conditions for the homeless and other low-income residents struggling with housing, she added.

However, Dr. Vince Savage, director of the nonprofit Aspen Homeless Shelter, said he fears the process could take on a life of its own without the community recognizing the long-term ramifications of what the county may be doing.

Savage said the homeless population is generally well-served by the winter shelter, which takes in an average of 20 to 30 clients during the coldest months between 9 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. During the summer months, area homeless typically camp outdoors wherever they can, and the lack of an overnight shelter serves as a deterrent to Aspen becoming inundated with more homeless people on a year-round basis, he said.

“We think that people mean well when they say Aspen needs a year-round homeless shelter, but there are several things they are overlooking,” Savage said.

He pointed out that Glenwood Springs has had some recent issues involving its homeless population, which he said is a different crowd, perhaps more problematic, than Aspen’s. Some funding to agencies that assist homeless services in Glenwood Springs was held back, or delayed, over concerns that enhanced services might do more to exacerbate the problem.

“I think the people who say ‘if we didn’t try helping the homeless as much as we do we wouldn’t have so many homeless here, and therefore, no problem’ … there may be a point to that, I don’t know,” Savage said.

“It’s not a very compassionate point, and it overlooks the fact that our organization, Aspen Homeless Shelter, is busy helping people who have definite ties to Aspen, either people who were born here or people who have lived and worked here for a time and they’ve fallen on hard times.”

Savage said if Aspen had a year-round overnight shelter, the city might become a destination for homeless people from all over the region.

“You might get people gravitating to Aspen because of [perceptions of] free housing,” he said. “Our staff does a good job of vetting people when they show up at our door, to make sure they didn’t just come here to snowboard, smoke dope and chase girls, which is what I’ve had people tell me they are doing.”

Savage said he’s trying to “honor the donors that we have” by not creating more of a homeless problem in the Aspen area.

“The catchphrase that people say is, ‘Don’t build it or they’ll come.’ You don’t want to create an attractive nuisance,” he said.

Savage suggested that Sundeen, County Manager Jon Peacock and others aren’t listening to him and others about keeping the homeless population in check.

He said the recent discussions may be a knee-jerk reaction to events that unfolded last year when homeless people from outside of the area, many of whom had their own vehicles, were camping out at the Brush Creek Intercept Lot and disturbing regular commuters in order to gain proximity to internet access.

There also are concerns that arose during the most recent summer — when dry conditions led to heightened fire dangers — that homeless people camping on Pitkin County open space and other wilderness areas without monitors were a public safety threat.

Savage said he believes that county officials and others might be “cherry picking” from comments garnered through the public process and the October meeting at Aspen Chapel to fit their own agenda. The community may need some additional services to address homelessness but it has to be handled by experts on the subject and those with experience in dealing with different types of homeless people.

“I think there is a solution in Aspen, but I don’t think it’s a year-round shelter,” he said, adding that the takeaway from the meeting of eliminating homelessness in the county “is very curious to me.”

Sundeen said there was a sense among the stakeholders who attended the meeting in October that the winter shelter is not enough.

“It’s not serving the whole range of population that’s struggling,” she said. “There are other local agencies that are serving those populations that are struggling with housing and homelessness. I would say that in general, we have very few single agencies that do everything for a population. Our goal is to pull partners together from a variety of segments of the community and strengthen our response.”

Peacock called the Oct. 22 meeting “a community conversation starter” and said that it grew out of the summer fire threats. He said the question is whether the county and the city have the “right portfolio of services” to address the homeless population.

A year-round shelter is a possibility, as is the concept of starting an outdoor camping area for homeless people that would be managed to address fire and other safety concerns. Other types of services to assist the homeless may include substance-abuse counseling and mental-health management.

Peacock said there’s no rush toward any type of new program and was critical of Savage for not being more supportive of those who want to explore other options for homeless services besides the existing winter shelter. The county also has daytime programs designed to assist the homeless.

“I don’t know where we’re headed,” Peacock said, “but do you improve the problem by not talking about it?”

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