Homeless meeting

Lindsay Maisch, center, deputy director of human services for Pitkin County, listens to a comment from a committee participant during Friday’s meeting of stakeholders and others who are part of an ongoing initiative to end homelessness in Pitkin County.

An action plan that addresses Pitkin County’s goal of ending homelessness in the area is expected to be created over the next couple of months.

Lindsay Maisch, the county’s deputy director of human services, said a draft of the proposal – “a response to housing instability” – likely will be presented in time for a January meeting of stakeholders and others who are part of a coalition that has been working on the initiative for the past 14 months.

“We just feel that it’s part of our ethical responsibility to take care of our people in Pitkin County,” Maisch said of solutions aimed at helping local homeless individuals along a path toward stable housing as well as access to other community services that could reintroduce them to mainstream society. 

The coalition met for more than three hours on Friday at the county’s health and human services meeting.

“There was a lot of energy at the meeting today,” she said just after the gathering ended. The agenda included a presentation on a new relationship with a national nonprofit that works on solutions to eradicate homelessness, primarily through housing opportunities, an update on discussions involving the possible use of the former Aspen Ambulance District building as a year-round emergency shelter and taped comments from a woman who recently was housed in Rifle through the aid of Catholic Charities in Glenwood Springs.

In addition, a new committee that will work on “community outreach and engagement” surrounding the effort was created. Three other committees in the focus areas of homelessness response, housing and data already have been working on the project.

“The new committee will help us with the messaging campaign we’ve been talking about,” Maisch said. 

Jose Saez, a former homeless individual who is a working with the Pitkin Area Co-responder Teams program, likely will chair the outreach group, according to Maisch. PACT is a collaborative community effort between local law enforcement and mental health professionals, and Saez works for Mindsprings Health, a nonprofit that provides mental health treatment and emergency services throughout the region.

Dr. Vince Savage, director of the nonprofit Aspen Homeless Shelter, spoke about his effort to make use of what’s known as the “Old Ambobarn” near Aspen Valley Hospital for a possible year-round shelter. The local ambulance district moved out of the building after its new headquarters, also near the hospital, opened in late summer.

Local officials have been organized into a “peer review group” to evaluate Savage’s proposal. They met on Nov. 1, but nothing has been decided. The county owns the building and the hospital owns the land on which the building sits.

“The peer group will be making recommendations and there will be an opportunity to refine the proposal before it goes before county commissioners and the hospital board,” Maisch said. 

One issue with potential use of the building could be its state of decline, she said. “One thing that did happen at the peer review meeting was a comment from a facilities [official] who said ‘we’re not even sure this building can be used for public use,’” Maisch said.

The county will continue to evaluate whether the building would be a viable option for use as a shelter, she said. Aspen Homeless Shelter currently operates a winter emergency shelter at St. Mary Church, from Dec. 1 through March each year, and also a year-round day shelter at Pitkin County’s human services building.

“If it’s not a viable option, we’ll have to seek other locations for a year-round emergency shelter,” Maisch said. “There will be a walk-through of the building next week.”

Though Savage was initially skeptical of the county’s stated initiative to end homelessness, he has been an active participant in the coalition process from the beginning.

“One thing the [peer review group] said that sounded like a decision already was that they didn’t like the building,” he said. “They thought the location made a lot of sense, as it’s close to the hospital, close to the emergency room.”

Savage said he’s examined the building. “It’s not falling down,” he said. “If you measure any interim solution against the ideal, of course you’re going to find problems. But we’re measuring it against nothing. It’s the only building that we know of right now that’s empty and available.”

Savage said that he’s hopeful that the discussion will move forward. He said he would like to open an interim shelter at the “Ambobarn” in the spring after the winter shelter closes, just to see how things go.

Maisch said that several regional officials and stakeholders in October attended a Denver workshop conducted by the nonprofit Built for Zero, which is working throughout the United States on solutions to alleviate homelessness. Built for Zero provided a $10,000 scholarship to area participants that covered the cost of expenses during the workshop period, and will continue to assist county and regional initiatives through training and advice.

Built for Zero’s suggestion to local communities is to create a “quality” working list of local homeless individuals as a first step, Maisch said.

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