Yet again, Pope Francis is making headlines. The latest stories reveal that he seems to have a habit of dressing in disguise and going out at night to tend to the poor and homeless of Rome. This continues a practice from his days as archbishop of Buenos Aires, when he would venture out in the evening to provide food and fellowship for the city’s homeless population. He is a powerful reminder of what it means to live as an agent of God’s love and not just preach about it.
Fortunately, Aspen has its own local heroes dedicated to serving our homeless population. I know it’s not popular to speak about homelessness in a luxury resort town, but it is a real problem, and it is in our collective backyard. The staff and leadership of the Aspen Homeless Shelter confront the challenges of local homelessness every day with care, professionalism and effectiveness.
When most people think of helping the homeless, they think of food and housing. That is taking care of immediate needs and ensuring safety and survival. And that work is core to the mission of the shelter. The Day Center, at the Health and Human Services Building, is open 365 days a year and includes a hot meal every evening at 6. Last year, staff and volunteers served more than 3,600 dinners. The Overnight Shelter, generously housed at St. Mary Catholic Church with the support of the Rev. John Hilton (and the late Helen Klanderud), opens in the coldest winter months to offer a warm place to sleep and a hot shower. Last winter, it provided more than 1,400 nights of shelter to 54 different people.
Fulfilling basic needs, though essential, is only one part of the shelter’s work with homeless people. Its mission also includes, in the words of Executive Director Vince Savage, a commitment to “help them access resources ... and to assist in transition to stability and self-reliance.” Through the dedicated case management of Valley Information and Assistance, people who need help are connected to physical and mental-health care services, substance-abuse counseling and rehab. The Day Shelter also aids in finding employment opportunities and transitional housing.
The presence of the Homeless Shelter also helps other aspects of the community that you might not realize at first. An effective homelessness safety net inhibits camping out at the public library, seeking food and warmth at gallery openings and other public events, and sneaking into other buildings for shelter. It also reduces the burden on the local police, jail and emergency room when the needs of the homeless population are met proactively with an “ounce of prevention.”
With the holiday season and the first big snow and lower temperatures upon us, I invite you to make the Aspen Homeless Shelter a priority in your giving and volunteering. I hope that more and more Aspenites will make it an annual cause, for investing in the Homeless Shelter means investing in a better Aspen.
Our mountain town prides itself on being a healthy community that celebrates body, mind and spirit. I hope and believe there is room in that ethos for a commitment to justice and caring for those who might otherwise fall through society’s cracks.
Speaking to the nation in a time of unprecedented economic crisis, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” Let’s leave for another day the debate about how much of our efforts to “provide enough” should be led by government versus private individuals.
In the meantime, let’s each take responsibility for the part we can play in making Aspen the healthiest community it can be — a good place to work, a fun place to play, a peaceful place to unwind and a just place where we take care of one another.
Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, serves on the board of the Aspen Homeless Shelter and can be reached at 970-925-8245 or email@example.com. He blogs at www.aspenjewish.blogspot.com, and his column runs the first Saturday of each month.