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Guest column: Homelessness is more than meets the eye

Aspen Community Foundation, Board Photo, Mar. 13, 2014

When you hear the word "homeless," what images come to mind? Often, it's a disheveled man pushing a shopping cart, begging for change with a cardboard sign.

In America and the greater Roaring Fork Valley, this image has largely become the public face of homelessness. A recent uptick in the amount of panhandling and vagrancy in Glenwood Springs, for example, led to media coverage and a public discussion on the issue. In the social-service community, these individuals are known as "chronically homeless," and their plight is often connected to physical or mental disabilities. However, they represent only 15 percent of America's homeless.

For the vast majority of the homeless on any given day, the experience of homelessness is temporary or episodic. They have lost their housing because of an unforeseen financial crisis — a medical emergency or the loss of a job, for example. Typically, these individuals or families might spend some time in a homeless shelter or doubled up with friends and family, but they bounce back once they receive some assistance with rent, employment or simply time to catch up financially.

Other large categories of homeless people are military veterans and youth. Veterans, often afflicted with war-related physical or mental challenges, can have difficulty adapting to civilian life. When offered help with jobs, medical needs and housing, however, many struggling vets can get back on their feet.

In our community, the Aspen Homeless Shelter, Advocate Safehouse and Feed My Sheep in Glenwood Springs provide refuge and case management for 500 individuals over the course of a year.

Young people present a different sort of problem. When faced with divorce, abuse or some other family conflict, many youths end up couch-surfing or moving from place to place before eventually returning home or settling in with friends or extended family. This subset of the homeless population is sufficiently prevalent that a new facility in Carbondale has been created to help meet their needs. Stepping Stones of the Roaring Fork Valley is a drop-in center where teens facing any kind of challenge can come for a warm meal or simply a safe place to be.

Jenny Lindsay, the homeless-education liaison for the Roaring Fork School District, has identified 56 students in the district who are currently homeless but suspects the real number may approach 200.

"Many of our students are in that situation," Lindsay said. "There are families living in cars; many families live in hotels. Most of them are not on the street. Some are camping."

On one day in January 2014, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless conducted a statewide count that reported 123 homeless people in Garfield and Pitkin counties. These were mostly males, many of them suffering from some kind of physical or mental disability. However, as Marian McDonough of Catholic Charities reminds us, the homeless are not homogeneous.

"Homelessness is not necessarily the stereotype of the drunk in the gutter," she said. "Often, homeless people are working but cannot afford to get into housing with first, last and deposit. There are times when it's mental illness or physical disability, there are times when it's substance abuse and then there are those who have chosen it as a lifestyle. It encompasses a myriad of different people."

The Roaring Fork Valley is, in many ways, a model for philanthropy and taking care of its own. This is reflected in the shelters and other organizations that help struggling individuals and families avoid homelessness and other pitfalls. It's important to understand also that these organizations don't just feed and shelter people; they also help them find employment and housing, reconnect with family and access other support systems to return them to independence and stability.

With winter setting in, the Aspen and Glenwood shelters have opened their doors. It's cold out there. Please consider a holiday contribution to any of these local nonprofit organizations caring for some of our most vulnerable residents.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.