Mountain Character: Vince Savage, Aspen Homeless Center’s director and resident philosopher
March 28, 2016
Vince Savage's office isn't exactly a portrait of neat and orderly. Post-it notes are peppered about, a DVD of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is in plain view on a bookshelf, a framed photograph of the Dalai Lama hangs beneath a shelf of files, binders and boxes. Relics, books, coffee mugs, papers, notebooks and other items fill in the rest of the area. Bare spaces are a scarce commodity.
Some people couldn't, or wouldn't, work in such cluttered conditions. Having a tidy office wouldn't suit Savage, either, even though the humanistic psychologist subscribes to structure.
"I always find it ironic that a guy like me — a self-styled and counterculture person — can help people walk the straight and narrow," he said. "Through structure is freedom. If you can live by the rules, you can have a lot more freedom."
Savage's office is akin to a mini museum of psychology theories and practices, spiritual and religious texts, self-actualization and a touch of pop culture — from a pseudo driver's license of Walter White, the meth-making chemistry teacher in "Breaking Bad," to a poster of Doc Savage, the pulp magazine character from the 1930s and '40s. That's also Savage's nickname among professionals and users of the Aspen Homeless Shelter. With a Ph.D from the University of Northern Colorado in counseling psychology, he likes to play it up.
"I'm pretty egomaniacal," joked Savage, now in his 60s. "I need to see my picture."
Savage's road to the homeless shelter has been filled with social work, activism and academia. The son of an investigative reporter who was a professor of journalism at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, Savage grew up in a college town that shaped his early views on life.
As a teenager during his counter-culture hippie days, he worked for Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. When he attended the University of Indiana, one of Savage's roommates and fraternity brothers was Mark Spitz, the nine-time gold-medalist Olympic swimmer. Savage's travels took him to the Middle East in 1967, where he provided aid after the Arab–Israeli war, also known as the Six-Day War. He saw the horror of war and decided, "This isn't politics. This is psychology."
Savage has worked with drug addicts in the Canadian Arctic, as well as those in Aspen in the 1980s at a rehabilitation center for alcoholics and habitual users of cocaine. He also taught at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
In 2004, Savage became director of Valley Information and Assistance, which was funded by the now-defunct Aspen Valley Medical Foundation. The purpose of Valley Information and Assistance was to help people who had addiction and health problems. Valley Information eventually spun off into the Aspen Homeless Shelter, a nonprofit with Savage at the helm. After the medical foundation dismantled, the homeless shelter was left on its own to find funding.
Savage had to focus on raising funds to keep the shelter solvent, which it remains today. Its budget last year was $295,000; this year it's $308,000.
Its services include day center at the Health and Human Services Center by the hospital. There, homeless guests can stay warm and enjoy hot meals, some of which are provided by The Little Nell. During most of the winter, they can stay overnight at St. Mary Church. And, most recently, the Aspen Community Church opened its doors to the homeless, who can stay there overnight until the end of the month.
Savage said he regularly hears from people who are surprised Aspen has a homeless population. The homeless shelter aids some 20 people, but not all of Aspen's homeless population uses it.
The shelter's clients have been authorities, stockbrokers and bankers. Others are just normal people who made poor life choices. Some are plagued by mental-health issues and substance-abuse problems, Savage said.
But a common thread among them, Savage explained, is that most have strong ties to Aspen.
"One thing people don't understand is that a majority of them are locals," he said. "Our people are born in Aspen, graduated Aspen High School or have been around here for decades."
Savage can be strict — people under the influence of drugs or alcohol aren't allowed in the Day Center and can't use the church's overnight services.
"There's always this tension between the bleeding-heart liberals, the well-meaning people and the people like me who see the value of structure and limits," he said. "I'm as big a bleeding-heart liberal as anybody, but I've also see the damage people can have with total freedom. Sometimes they have to pull up their own bootstraps."
There was the time Savage bought a van for Jane Patterson and Michael O'Gara, two Aspen transients who ran into a plethora of legal issues and problems in the 2000s. Savage caught grief for it; the pair's drinking issues had been well chronicled in the local newspapers, and here Savage was, buying them a vehicle to drink and drive in. But Savage felt they needed a push-start. The two now live in Denver. O'Gara has sobered up and is living on his own, while Patterson resides at the Beacon Place, a transitional living quarters for homeless residents.
Savage said Aspen needs emergency transition housing for those who are abused, homeless or have addiction problems, among other people. He envisions it as a multifaceted service.
"You can't put the Response victims (of domestic abuse) with the homeless or the drunks," he said. "But we've got to have a multifaceted thing. It could be done."
Savage, who also runs Beaver Lake Retreat in Marble, said the Aspen Homeless Shelter's core mission is to provide safety and security.
"We don't want anybody in Pitkin County to succumb to the elements," he said. "And working with this group is tremendously enriching because of the personalities of these folks. They've got survival instincts, and they've got their own sense of status and belonging."