homeless encampment

The homeless encampment near the Brush Creek Park and Ride is pictured last week. Pitkin County set up the shelter last year to provide area homeless residents with a safe shelter following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its occupancy fluctuates; a count last week showed it housed 16 people, down from more than 25 during winter.

 

Money continues to flow Pitkin County’s way to assist local efforts to house the homeless.

In February, Aspen-based nonprofit Recovery Resources applied to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs for funding through DOLA’s Emergency Solutions Grant Program. The program is designed to be “the first step in a continuum of assistance to prevent homelessness and enable individuals and families experiencing or at risk of homelessness to move toward permanent housing,” according to DOLA.

In April, a grant of $538,073 was approved, to be used by Recovery Resources to assist Pitkin County and other local efforts to help alleviate area homelessness. The money originates from the second major stimulus package for COVID-19 relief, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which was passed by Congress in December. The first such package was the CARES Act, passed in March 2020, which funneled $570,000 to the county for homeless and housing needs.

Nan Sundeen, director of human services for Pitkin County, explained last week that after the first round of funding was approved a year ago through the CARES Act, the county contracted with Recovery Resources to help capture more federal dollars to assist homeless services. Recovery Resources, founded in 2016, operates the ­detoxification unit at the county’s Health and Human Services Building near Aspen Valley Hospital, and manages many other local government-related services, including court-ordered drug testing, pretrial services, DUI education, counseling and more.

“The silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic is that more money has been coming to help improve our homeless response systems,” Sundeen said.

Recovery Resources has created what it calls the Unsheltered Outreach Program to work collaboratively with the county to conduct outreach in the community to those without housing. “We offer emergency shelter and rapid rehousing to qualifying individuals. This is the first step for many individuals in ‘creating a new story’ through direct connection with Recovery Resources services,” its website, recoveryresourcescolorado.org, states.

Janelle Duhon, executive director of Recovery Resources, said the new round of funds will be used for programs and services beginning Oct. 1. The first round of money Pitkin County received through the CARES Act must be spent by Sept. 30.

Over the last few years, Pitkin County and many of its partners and stakeholders have been working actively to solve area homelessness issues. A coalition on housing stability, consisting of county officials and area stakeholders such as law enforcement and health care providers, was formed in late 2018 to address what was deemed to be a growing problem. The coalition meets regularly to discuss goals and initiatives and will gather again this Friday.

Duhon said she expects some of the funds from the new grant will be used toward the county’s Safe Outdoor Space encampment for the homeless, which is located in a corner of the Brush Creek Park and Ride lot north of Aspen. Other uses for the money include street outreach to homeless residents, rapid rehousing for those who have suddenly lost their housing, data entry and administrative costs. The nonprofit has hired four case managers to conduct street outreach and help with the rapid rehousing effort, she said.

The number of homeless people using the SOS camp has decreased in recent weeks. Sundeen’s latest count was 16, down from a larger population of 20 to 30 residents during the winter. The camp provides electricity, running water, heat, food, bedding materials and more to homeless residents, and the county works with local law enforcement to ensure a safe atmosphere. Many of the camp’s residents work part-time and full-time in the community.

Sundeen said the camp will remain for as long as COVID-related public health orders are in place. Once the orders are completely lifted, the county will get two months to break down the camp. Regardless of the orders, the camp must be removed in the spring of 2022 to accommodate a project to renovate the Brush Creek public-transit facility, she said.

Friday’s meeting will address a host of topics, including an idea to create a year-round campus to assist chronic and new homeless residents. The future of the SOS facility at Brush Creek also will be discussed, along with the lack of a winter emergency shelter. The nonprofit Aspen Homeless Shelter formerly operated a winter overnight facility at St. Mary Catholic Church in Aspen and other locations, but was unable to provide the seasonal service last winter because of pandemic-related concerns from the managers of potential locations.

Sundeen said she believes that the demand for services from area homeless will rise this summer because local housing, which is always considered to be expensive, has ­become more costly since the onset of the pandemic.

“A lot of people are showing up in town for work, but they have no housing,” she said. “It happens every summer, but it’s more difficult this year because of the housing situation. The cost for housing is off the charts.”

Vince Savage, director of the Aspen Homeless Shelter, said there’s been no significant uptick in activity at the nonprofit’s day shelter, which also is located in the county’s Health and Human Services Building. The day shelter is assisting an average of about five to six regulars per day, depending on the weather, he said.

Savage’s nonprofit doesn’t operate the SOS shelter — it’s a county initiative. But Savage speculated that the number of users in Brush Creek may be down due to the warmer weather and homeless residents preferring to stay in various other outdoor spaces.

The idea for a year-round campus grew out of discussions by Aspen Homeless Shelter board members, he said. He credited Pitkin County Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely, former jail administrator Don Bird, architect Jim Colombo and Patricia Bukur — director of development for the Aspen Homeless Shelter — with advancing the concept.

“We’re looking into what’s possible and not possible regarding locations for a campus,” he said. “It wouldn’t just be an emergency shelter; it would be a multifaceted, multiuse campus. We’re seeing some community support for this idea.”

Savage added that the campus wouldn’t necessarily be operated by his nonprofit.

“We’re happy to bring the idea forward,” he said, “but I don’t think something this significant could be handled by a single entity.”

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