Built for zero

Pitkin County’s human services department and other regional governments and stakeholders have joined forces with a national initiative in their quest to end homelessness from Aspen to Parachute.

Built for Zero is a movement of more than 70 cities and counties that is “driving down the number of people experiencing homelessness,” according to Community Solutions, a New York-based nonprofit that is leading the effort.

“By harnessing the full power of data, 11 of those 70 communities have reached Functional Zero, a milestone indicating that homelessness is rare and brief for a population,” says the Community Solutions website. “In order to propel this movement toward an end of homelessness for all, we help communities use data to change how their homeless response systems operate, develop new models to close gaps in housing, disrupt homelessness from occurring altogether, and help communities create racially equitable response systems.”

Lindsay Maisch, deputy director of human services for Pitkin County, said last week that the Roaring Fork Valley recently was chosen as a “new community” by Community Solutions and Built for Zero. A $10,000 scholarship enabled local stakeholders to attend a three-day conference in Denver last month to learn about the program and begin a one-year process in which they will receive training and advice from experts in the homelessness arena.

Participants included representatives from Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties, the Aspen Homeless Shelter, Glenwood Springs, Mindsprings Health, Catholic Charities and West Mountain Regional Health Alliance.

“The $10,000 was really to get us all to the conference,” Maisch said. “We were assigned a ‘coach’ and we will be receiving coaching every two weeks. And then we get all of this other technical support for a database that will help us drive our homeless numbers down to zero. We were chosen as a community and the help they give us will be free for one year.”

Built for Zero addresses the “continuum of care” that Pitkin County human services officials have been speaking about with regard to the mission of the local coalition to end homelessness, Maisch said. Built for Zero suggests that communities start the process by creating a “high-quality list” of homeless people in the area, an effort that may take up to a year, she said.

“Built for Zero is about getting everybody’s name on the list. They will give us structure and organization,” Maisch said. “We haven’t had a lot of good data to support the effort; it’s all been anecdotal.”

She said until there is better data on the number of homeless people and their identities, the county won’t be eligible for a large number of state grants that are expected to be available over the next few years. Those monies would help the county with potential projects that have yet to be decided, such as the creation of a year-round shelter and other services that can help people make the transition out of homelessness.

The Aspen Homeless Shelter already operates a winter emergency shelter at St. Mary Catholic Church from December through March, the four coldest months of the year. The nonprofit also has a year-round day shelter that provides various services to homeless people at the county’s health and human services building off Castle Creek Road, near Aspen Valley Hospital.

But the initiative to end homelessness got underway about 13 months ago amid the belief that the area’s homeless need more than a seasonal shelter. Aside from the end goal of helping people obtain housing, Built for Zero and the local coalition want to assist each homeless person individually by assessing their needs, which may include job training, medical care and mental health treatment.

“We’re all going to need staffing,” Maisch said. “Beginning in 2022 to 2024, there will be something like $20 million in grants that will be available each year. First, we are going to need a list. We’re really excited to get this going and to start actually matching data to the anecdote.”

She said it’s not known how many homeless individuals are in the valley. Past estimates have ranged from 10 to 20 in the upper valley to perhaps 75 to 100 valleywide, with several people roving back and forth between Aspen and the Interstate 70 corridor.

At the Nov. 8 meeting of the local coalition, Maisch’s presentation showed that in recent years, Built for Zero has helped 10 communities end veterans’ homelessness. Three communities have ended chronic homelessness. Forty-three communities have achieved a tangible reduction, and 112,636 people have been housed.

Obtaining housing in the Roaring Fork Valley, where real-estate values are among the highest in the U.S., is often difficult for people with stable employment and participation in mainstream society, so logic would dictate that housing homeless people will be an even tougher proposition.

But Maisch said the local participants in the recent conference learned the affordable-housing issue is a common theme across the nation.

“Built for Zero constantly hears, ‘There’s no housing.’ So that’s one thing we learned, that we are not unique,” she said.

The local participation in Built for Zero apparently was aided through a grant from health care provider Kaiser Permanente Colorado. 

Last week, the nonprofit health system issued a news release stating that “five local communities have now joined metro Denver to form a community cohort aimed at ending homelessness in their respective communities along the Front Range, Western Slope and in the mountain communities.”

According to the release, the cohort, which includes the three counties in the Roaring Fork Valley, is being supported through $500,000 in community health funding from Kaiser Permanente as part of the nonprofit health care organization’s national collaboration with Community Solutions.

“The link between housing and health is well documented,” Mike Ramseier, regional president for Kaiser Permanente in Colorado, said in a prepared statement. “With nearly 11,000 Coloradans experiencing homelessness each day, we know more must be done to improve the health of our communities.

“But we can’t do this alone. We are honored to partner with these local institutions and communities as we work collectively to end chronic homelessness.”

Metro Denver joined Built for Zero in 2016. Aside from the Pitkin-Eagle-Garfield grouping as a single community, the other new communities brought into the Built for Zero fold include the counties of El Paso, Fremont, Mesa and (combined) Larimer-Weld counties.

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