Homelessness meeting

Participants in Pitkin County’s housing stability coalition, which has met for more than a year under the stated goal of ending homelessness in the area, provide input into the next steps of the process during a meeting on Friday morning.

The Pitkin County human services department has released a draft of what it calls a “community action plan to end homelessness in the area,” the culmination of more than a year’s worth of meetings in which dozens of stakeholders from various segments of the community provided input and perspective into the problem.

The action plan is the first official document to evolve from the local coalition dealing with issues relating to homelessness and housing instability, and it broadly outlines certain desired outcomes. It does not contain specifics, for example, about where a 24-hour emergency shelter could be located in the Aspen area. Nor does it identify places where new housing might be built to assist homeless people in the transition from outdoor life to a stable indoor living environment.

Short-term goals identified in the plan include expanding and stabilizing case-management systems and access to mental health resources, along with creating a “rapid re-housing” program for people who have lost their housing with a matter of days or a few weeks. Long-term goals, which had been previously identified by the workgroup, i­­nclude the establishment of a 24-hour emergency shelter, an end to veteran homelessness by 2022 and an end to chronic homelessness by 2025.

Nan Sundeen, director of human services for the county, called the action plan a summary of the group’s intentions.

“We’re taking a whole year’s worth of work and trying to put it in a place that could guide us and eventually give us some benchmarks to start to measure success,” she said.

With the action plan in place, one of the next steps will be to start

engaging the community at large about the concepts so as to develop solutions to the various outlined issues. Money, from multiple public and private sources, will be one of the keys to the initiative’s success.

The short-term goal of a “rapid re-housing” program aims to get people back into housing quickly, with support, “so that we don’t keep adding to our list of homeless that we have,” Sundeen said.

That could be a difficult proposition in a community that has an extreme lack of affordable-housing opportunities given the level of existing need among the workforce for housing, she acknowledged.

“We need some infrastructure, we need some [community] agreement that it’s a priority,” Sundeen said.

The county, in association with other governmental entities, has partnered with a national initiative to end homelessness, Built for Zero, which says the first step in the process should be the creation of an accurate list of people in the area who are homeless. An annual “point in time” count of people who used the Aspen Homeless Shelter’s winter seasonal facility at St. Mary Catholic Church on Tuesday night revealed the figure of 22. Vince Savage, the shelter’s director, admitted that 22 is not an accurate reflection of the number of homeless people who tend to roam about Pitkin County and the mid-to-upper Roaring Fork Valley. Others agreed that the count was extremely low.

The coalition includes participants from health care organizations along the Interstate 70 corridor. One idea that came up Friday during a video conference was the creation of a multijurisdictional, quasi-governmental authority that would coordinate homeless and housing-stability services from Aspen to downvalley areas past Glenwood Springs (such as Parachute or Eagle), given the number of people who tend to roam throughout the valley. There’s strength in numbers, and with a wider scope, more money could be garnered through state and federal grants (and private donations) to achieve some of the goals the local housing coalition would like to realize.

Some participants at Friday’s meeting noted that not all homeless people want to reside indoors. Some prefer wide open spaces and the ability to move about at will. It’s not part of their “psyche” to want to be housed, as one man put it.

Another comment related to the question of providing emergency shelter to people who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Would the community want to throw its financial resources into systems or structures that take in people who don’t necessarily want help for their substance-abuse issues? Should homeless individuals who are typically disruptive or even violent be integrated into emergency or short-term housing opportunities with those who are truly trying to solve their problem of housing instability?

As former Pitkin County Jail administrator Don Bird said, the community is not likely to support something it views as an expanded detox center, a facility that could be seen as enabling the homeless.

There was talk from meeting facilitators about employing a compassionate “safe haven” mentality that doesn’t exclude certain segments of the homeless community. Sundeen suggested after the meeting that despite some of the concerns about assisting people who don’t want various services including stable housing, the process will continue to focus on serving the entire homeless population in any possible way.

Situations involving disruptive people can be resolved on a case-by-case basis, just as they are at the Aspen Homeless Shelter’s day shelter and emergency night shelter.

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