Aspen’s nighttime homeless shelter closes for the season

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – It’s been a busy December-to-March season for the Aspen Homeless Shelter’s night facility – including one record-setting day during the January cold snap in which 26 people slept overnight at St. Mary Catholic Church, shelter director Vince Savage said Friday.

But while it was a busy four months, it was generally uneventful, and those using the shelter’s services mostly behaved themselves, he said.

“We only had to get the police involved at the shelter a few times over the whole season,” Savage said.

In mid-March, the shelter moved from St. Mary’s on Main Street to Aspen Community Church on East Bleeker Street in order to accommodate the annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner at St. Mary’s. The shelter at Aspen Community Church likely will close the morning of April 1, depending on weather conditions.

“We could extend it a couple of days if it’s cold and snowing really bad,” Savage said. “But the guys are gearing up to find other places. They’re looking for some kind of housing or they’re going to go back to their camping spots or something. It’s kind of a tense time for homeless people because winter’s not really over.”

Homeless Gear, a program of the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado in Fort Collins, collects camping equipment during the year and is donating sleeping bags, backpacks, tents and other items to the Aspen Homeless Shelter, Savage said.

“They give away stuff all over the state and we called them and they set some things aside for us,” he said. “We get a lot of local donations too, but Homeless Gear kind of closes the gap for what these folks need to survive.”

The Aspen Homeless Shelter, which encompasses the winter night quarters, a day center and an evening meal program, continually battles the misconception that there are no poor or homeless people in the Aspen area, Savage said.

The Aspen homeless population is a stable group in terms of its size, he said. The evening meals at the Schultz Health and Human Services Building, 405 Castle Creek Road, draw an average of 15 to 20 people. The winter night shelter at the two churches typically sees 12 to 14 people, up to 20 on the coldest nights. January’s weather was much colder than normal, with an average daily low of 4 degrees compared with a historical average of 13 degrees, according to

Savage said one of the primary purposes of his organization is to help transition Aspen’s homeless back into the mainstream.

“There’s a certain percentage that’s never going to mainstream; they are the chronic homeless,” he said. “We’re constantly trying to work with guys to get their behavior altered to where they can mainstream, trying to package themselves so that they can find work.”

Last week, Savage attended a conference on health care for the homeless in Washington, D.C. On his way back, he stopped in Pittsburgh and met with Dr. Jim Withers, subject of the 2008 short-documentary “From One Bridge to the Next.” Withers makes night rounds, offering medical assistance and other forms of support to the city’s homeless.

“I went out with him on his rounds,” Savage said. “It was really an educational thing. What I learned was that homelessness is about the same everywhere. The solution to it varies.

“We end up doing all the same functions that a big shelter with 600 to 900 people a night does; we just do it in a smaller way,” Savage explained. “We don’t get to specialize. We’re sort of a generalist. For homeless people, we’re like the small-town hardware store compared to other cities that operate more like a Home Depot.”

A year ago, the shelter suspended its program that worked to place homeless people into the city’s affordable-housing units at Marolt Ranch as long as they were able to remain employed.

“We dropped the transitional housing program for the foreseeable future,” Savage said. “It was somewhat too costly and it was so hard to predict who was going to be able to make the grade up into a housing situation where certain responsibilities were expected of them.

“Most of the people we placed did fine – some have moved on now to mainstream life – but one of the problems we had was with some of the friends of these people. They would go over to their houses and create trouble. Our guys may be sober, but they might have some drunk friend over, or a girlfriend, and those people would get in trouble and make the (newspaper) police blotter and give us a bad name,” Savage continued.

Overall, the Aspen Homeless Shelter’s services provide a valuable community asset by giving upper Roaring Fork Valley homeless people somewhere to be, the organization’s director said.

“They’re not hanging out at every art opening or down at the library falling asleep, which often was the case in the past,” said Vince Savage, who runs the shelter. “The hospital emergency room, the downtown merchants, the police … are all telling us they’re happy that they come here.”

Of course, there are the exceptions. An Aspen Times story in early October 2011 pointed out a four-month spike in infractions involving the city’s homeless contingent, though not all of them resulted in arrest.

It was relatively minor stuff – urinating in public, open-container violations, disorderly conduct, camping in prohibited areas – but it added up to a big problem, according to at least one Aspen police investigator.

Call it the summer of the Aspen homeless population’s discontent.

Then there was the late December 2011 incident involving Jimmy Baldwin, who had been camping in Aspen and had gotten into trouble more than a few times with local law enforcement. Baldwin had qualities that made people believe in him, and when he expressed a desire to go to North Dakota to a place where energy jobs were said to be plentiful, Savage found a donor willing to put up money for a Greyhound ticket to get him there.

When the favor was publicized, there was a minor outcry from North Dakotans who surmised that Aspen was using North Dakota as a dumping ground for its homeless.

“No good deed goes unpunished,” Savage said.

Still, Savage believes things have stabilized. To be certain, bears made more headlines in the summer of 2012 than homeless people.

“I wish we could guarantee that all of our guys was perfectly adapted, but not all of them are,” he said. “We still get a few that get in trouble with their drinking problem, or some another behavioral thing. But I think we’ve gotten really good at this.

“We collaborate closely with the Aspen Counseling Center, the hospital emergency room. We even have local doctors who meet with our people so they don’t end up going to the emergency room and getting a big bill for a headache or a cut finger.”

Donations to the Aspen Homeless Shelter can be mailed to its main office at 405 Castle Creek Road, Suite 16, Aspen, CO, 81611. The Aspen Valley Foundation, whose mailing address is 616 E. Hyman Ave., Aspen, CO, 81611, also accepts donations on behalf of the shelter.

The nonprofit shelter accepts money and other items, including first-aid equipment, toiletries and gift cards for groceries.


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