A meeting Thursday morning on Aspen-area homelessness and housing instability concluded with a plan to develop a steering committee that will continue to research and discuss the issue.
More than 30 people attended the gathering, the second such brainstorming session since October, at the Aspen Chapel. Participants included law enforcement personnel, elected officials, representatives of area nonprofits, government administrators and a man who described himself as having been homeless for seven years.
It’s too soon to say where the process is headed, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said. Concepts tossed around at the meeting involved the establishment of an emergency shelter, transitional housing, support services, the geographic scope of new initiatives and sober-living complexes.
The county’s human services director, Nan Sundeen, initiated the discussions to examine problems and potential solutions surrounding homelessness and the lack of affordable housing to accommodate those in need. One goal that Sundeen and other meeting organizers culled from the first meeting on Oct. 22 was stated as “ending homelessness,” which met slight criticism from participants at Thursday’s meeting as being excessively optimistic.
Currently, through the nonprofit Aspen Homeless Shelter, there is a winter overnight shelter at St. Mary Catholic Church that accepts adults from December through March. There also is a day shelter at Pitkin County’s human services building near Aspen Valley Hospital that provides meals and small-scale support services, such as computer access.
But area homelessness is said to be a growing year-round concern, including in the summer months when individuals take up space in the Brush Creek Intercept Lot, a primary hub for Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses, as well as county open space and city park properties.
Peacock said one takeaway from Thursday’s meeting was that more information needs to be gathered. Later this month, officials plan to gauge how many people are using the local overnight and day shelters. Research into programs in Colorado and other parts of the country that have successfully helped homeless individuals transition toward stable lives also will be conducted.
“I think the steering committee is going to be trying to hone in on potential solutions to bring back to the larger group for further discussion, [to get a] thumbs up or thumbs down,” Peacock said. “I do not expect this to go quickly. These partnership conversations take time, to take everyone’s concerns into consideration and to try and find solutions that various partners can get behind.”
Peacock said he was impressed by the level of knowledge and different perspectives provided by the meeting participants. While issues surrounding homelessness are complex, oft-cited reasons for homelessness that came up during the meeting included low wages, high housing rental rates, substance abuse, mental illness, separation from friends and relatives, poor health, a seasonal economy and the need for more support services.
“I’m pretty hopeful that we’re going to find some new things to do as a community that will help,” Peacock said.
Phil Harrington, a deacon recently assigned to St. Mary Church, will facilitate the work of the steering committee. Through an email survey conducted in recent weeks, 18 people expressed their willingness to serve on the committee, including Vince Savage, director of the Aspen Homeless Shelter.
In recent months, Savage has publicly expressed reservations about the initiative, warning that the end result could be new programs and facilities that attract more homeless people to the area, which might not be beneficial to the community at large. However, during Thursday’s session, he offered insights into various topics surrounding homelessness.
“I think where this is going is where the community and the partners decide it should go,” Peacock said. “Really, all we’re doing is convening a conversation right now. Like many communities across the nation, we continue to struggle with the level of service that needs to be provided to prevent chronic homelessness. We want to define where the gaps are and where we can work together to make improvements. [But] we’re not driving to a particular solution at this point.”
Harrington, who moved to Aspen in August, is co-founder of Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community, which sits on 550 acres in the Lower Arkansas Valley. The facility, a statewide collaborative led by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, Bent County and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, offers recovery-oriented transitional housing to homeless people across the state.
The 5-year-old community consists of 110 buildings. The site previously served as a state prison and, before that, a federal veterans hospital. In 2011, then-Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed closing the prison as a cost-cutting move, which led to the property being repurposed.
“It’s peer-based, nonclinical supportive housing for those with substance-abuse disorders who are experiencing homelessness,” Harrington said. “They are allowed to stay up to three years. We’ve had about 1,500 men and women that have come through there. It’s basically a [transition] to stop dying and start living. It’s not a shelter.”
Early in Thursday’s meeting, when some in the audience took issue with the wording of the goal of “ending homelessness,” Harrington expressed the opposite sentiment. After the meeting, he said communities can indeed take steps to end homelessness.
“That was a term that Gov. Hickenlooper used when he was mayor of Denver,” he said. “What you do is remove all the barriers on the continuum of services for someone who wants out [of the homelessness cycle].
“The remedy for homelessness is housing,” Harrington continued. “You can get them into supportive housing with the appropriate supportive services for mental health and addiction so that the housing can be sustainable. You can house them without the support, but if they have untreated mental illness or untreated substance-abuse disorders then they are in danger of losing their housing. If you begin with the end in mind, which is to end homelessness, then what happens is that you begin to fill in all of the gaps that would prevent that person from retaining that housing.”