Homeless camp

Canvas tents have been erected recently near campers and other vehicles parked at Pitkin County’s homeless encampment on the south side of the Brush Creek Park & Ride lot. The encampment, what county officials and other agencies involved in assisting area homeless residents are calling Safe Outdoor Space, is expected to remain in place through the cold winter months given that the seasonal emergency overnight shelter in Aspen won’t be opening in December due to COVID-19.

No emergency overnight homeless shelter will be opening in Aspen this winter.

In lieu of the annual seasonal shelter that typically operates in the basement of St. Mary Catholic Church from December through March, area homeless citizens will be able to reside around the clock at Pitkin County’s fenced-in encampment on the south end of the Brush Creek Park & Ride lot, if there is room. The encampment has a maximum capacity of 25 people, so the county’s human services department has been working with local hoteliers to house any potential overflow. The county also is making use of a two-bedroom apartment to house a few people.

The Brush Creek encampment, set up in the spring following the onset of COVID-19, is being called Safe Outdoor Space, or SOS, according to Nan Sundeen, the county’s director of human services. She stressed that the encampment is not considered a “shelter.”

“SOS is a safe place where the homeless are not hassled and are not disruptive to the ­community. It is only temporary, designed to continue through the life of COVID-19 public health orders. We never thought we’d have to have SOS this long,” Sundeen said.

“So we have winterized our Safe Outdoor Space at Brush Creek, and we are also using hotels for people who are vulnerable,” Sundeen said Wednesday. “We also have received some grant money to start our transitional supportive housing program, where we will be able to move people out of homelessness.”

The vast majority of efforts to assist homeless residents stem from the county’s stated initiative to “end homelessness” that was born out of local stakeholder meetings that got underway two years ago. The effort isn’t simply about finding places for homeless people to live; the stakeholders agreed with county human services officials and others that a “continuum of care” model was the proper course of action in order to provide health services and pathways to employment that will help keep homeless people from sliding back into life on the streets and within local forest lands.

A coordinated care team has been created, consisting of case managers from the nonprofit Aspen Homeless Shelter (which has operated the winter-season shelter for decades), Aspen Police Department, Mind Springs Health, Catholic Charities and the Pitkin County Human Services Department. The case managers will work with homeless individuals to identify their needs, housing and otherwise.

Since the pandemic’s onset, the county has applied for and received around $800,000 in various grant monies to further the goal of creating an overall “homeless response system,” Sundeen said. Catholic Charities, which has an office in Glenwood Springs, will lead the way in helping homeless people make the transition to more permanent housing with assistance from funds the county has been securing. Some funds were derived through the state’s portion of the CARES Act, the federal government’s response to COVID-19 earlier this year.

Aspen Homeless Shelter, meanwhile, is working to find a place to create a year-round permanent facility. Various ideas have been floated in the past, including the temporary use of the former Aspen Ambulance District building near Aspen Valley Hospital, but that vacant structure has been deemed unsuitable by many officials.

Sundeen said the biggest single cost to the county associated with the Brush Creek encampment has been $14,000 for the fence that surrounds the area. The county’s monthly cost during the summer months was around $2,200 — but the cost is expected to climb this winter to around $3,500 monthly because of the need for improved energy systems and heating.

Dr. Vince Savage, director of the nonprofit Aspen Homeless Shelter, said the collaboration among the county and local agencies is proving to be successful. He was at the SOS site on Wednesday evening and noted that residents had received Thanksgiving dinners and other supplies from numerous local sources.

Since the summer, the bathroom facility has been expanded (it’s similar to an outdoor music festival’s restroom trailer) and a large white tent has been erected to serve as a common area, Savage said. He confirmed Sundeen’s statement that electrical and heating systems are being improved in advance of the coldest winter months.

Because of the potential for coronavirus spread, a temporary shelter in the basement of St. Mary Catholic Church or in space provided through other faith-based organizations was considered unfeasible, Savage said. It was a simple matter of the churches not having enough space for social distancing, he explained.

In late 2018, Savage was partly critical of the county’s initial efforts to get involved in eradicating homelessness. He wasn’t sure where the efforts were headed or what motives were driving the initiative. Now he appears to be fully on board.

“This is a success story about how much we can get done when we collaborate on everything,” he said.

The SOS site is not exactly going to be “toasty” this winter, but for its residents, it will be survivable, Savage said. In addition, many of the residents there have found part-time and full-time jobs. New managers, similar to resident assistants at college dormitories, have been put into place.

Most of the residents are men, but there are a few women; an Aspen police officer makes regular visits to ensure that everyone’s getting along in a reasonable manner.

“We’ve had very few problems over there,” Savage said. “I wouldn’t call it ‘glamping’ (the term for glamorous camping), but it’s survivable. Some of the people living out there tear up when you talk to them, they are so grateful.”

Savage and Sundeen point out that the local homeless population is at least twice that of the 25-person capacity at the SOS facility, and much more work remains toward the goal of providing a full “continuum of care.”

But the progress since the first stakeholder meeting in late 2018 is palpable.

“Nan Sundeen has done a heck of a job bringing people together. She is the main force on this, and a lot of organizations are helping. In the past, different agencies had different policies and protocols. Now we have learned how to work together,” Savage added.

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