Steve Skinner

Seeing people living on the streets is one of the most heartbreaking things I can imagine. Homeless veterans, homeless men, homeless teens, bag ladies. They are, in reality, some of the hardest working people in society. 

Imagine trying to live without what you have right now. Could you do it? Where would you go? How long can you last? 

Pitkin County Health and Human Services is part of a regional effort teaming with national group Built for Zero to assess and ultimately address the issue of homelessness from Aspen to Parachute.

Compared with some communities we don’t have that many homeless. Estimates put the number between 75 and 100 people in our area. We all have seen them under the bridges or on street corners and in traffic islands. 

A Nov. 15 Aspen Daily News article on the collaboration with Built for Zero quotes a prepared statement from Mike Ramsier, regional president for Kaiser Permanente in Colorado saying that, “the link between housing and health is well documented. With nearly 11,000 Coloradans experiencing homelessness each day, we know more must be done to improve the health of our communities.” 

Studies show that housing security is essential to health. Who knew? In my experience housing security can be fleeting in a community like this with sky high rents, shrinking rental inventory and stagnant wages. 

I have a bumper sticker on the back of my RV that reads “Second Homeless.” I have needed to utilize my Escape Pod out of necessity on occasion. This is a far cry from homeless but it can be very stressful. It can also be quite liberating. It’s important to maintain perspective.

Probably the biggest reason we have relatively few homeless here is because it can be so damn cold. There are no steam vents and abandoned storefronts to hunker in and on. Bigger cities mean more opportunity, community and amenities. On top of everything else the local homeless population can face horrible environmental conditions.

Years ago I interviewed a gentleman and some others who were living at the intersection of Highways 82 and 133. I had seen this bearded guy many times and some regular commuters knew his name. 

Causes and conditions had combined with his inability to hold a job and here we were under the bridge. It’s so easy to drive right over people that we don’t really see and don’t have to think about. 

The homeless and the panhandlers we see are often veterans, which is unfathomable. The obscene U.S. military budget could and should provide funds for housing communities for service members. And while we are at it let’s house others in our society that are incapable of making it without help. 

Thanks to the local organizations that serve the homeless and to the governmental entries, our area could see a tangible reduction in the number of homeless people.

The Aspen Daily News article said, “At the Nov. 8 meeting of the local coalition, Maisch’s (Lindsay Maisch, deputy director of human services for Pitkin County) 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.”

It’s too late for my friend under the bridge. But back in the day he would have appreciated the opportunity to be housed with dignity and compassion. He wasn’t camping out for fun.

Soiled appears Tuesdays in the Aspen Daily News. Reach Steve Skinner at nigel@sopris.net.