Aspen’s overnight shelter opens |

Aspen’s overnight shelter opens

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – With single-digit temperatures predicted Thursday night, the Aspen Homeless Shelter’s first night of the season comes at an extremely fortunate time for the city’s transient population, which has been growing in recent years.

The shelter, a nonprofit operation under the wing of the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation, is returning to St. Mary Catholic Church, 533 E. Main St. Shelter officials say that those in need of overnight rest but have nowhere to go should enter through the back door of the church, near the section of alley closest to South Hunter Street, between 9 and 10 p.m.

Guests are asked to sign in when they arrive. Poor behavior and drunkenness isn’t tolerated, and shelter personnel monitor the sleeping quarters for men and women. All guests must check out before 6:45 a.m. and will receive a light breakfast they can take with them upon departure.

Dr. Vince Savage, executive director of the shelter, said he’s expecting a full house of about 20 homeless people Thursday night. They are supplied with an Army-style cot, linens and a pillow, but have the option of sleeping on a pad if it’s more comfortable for them.

Savage said the area’s homeless population has been growing over the past few years, in the wake of the recession. That doesn’t necessarily mean the number of check-ins at the overnight shelter has grown proportionately, though, since many choose not to take advantage of the accommodations and related services.

“Some of them would rather couch surf; some of them have their own secret places where they would rather stay than deal with anybody who knows anything about them,” Savage said.

In 2008, before the economy soured, the overnight shelter averaged about 12 guests per night. Last winter, average occupancy was probably closer to 16. Typically only one or two of the guests are female.

Savage said that the overnight shelter is just one facet of his organization’s overall services. There’s also a day center and an evening shelter at the Pitkin County Health and Human Services building near the hospital off Castle Creek Road, where transients can get a break from the streets, parks and alleyways.

And, through a program that started a few months ago, six homeless people who were able to hold regular jobs and meet other qualifications were offered slightly discounted leases for three small apartments at the Marolt Ranch affordable-housing complex, also off Castle Creek Road.

“We try to work with people, as far as helping them to take responsibility for their situation and trying to improve that,” Savage said. “But with the case-management approach, if they don’t work their plan, or if they are not willing to even make a plan, then the amount of services that we extend to them becomes limited.”

Savage said there’s a misconception among some members of the community – as well as new transients coming to the area from other places – that the services are provided with no strings attached.

“I don’t want people to think that they can just call the homeless shelter and get some kind of housing deal,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is maintain a process to help get people get out of homelessness on their own volition.”

The overnight shelter faced the possibility of permanent closure last summer. But Father John Hilton, the new pastor of St. Mary, decided along with the parish council that the winter sleeping shelter fit the church’s mission, Savage said.

Because of the church’s other activities, homeless people can’t stay at the shelter between 6:45 a.m. and 9 p.m., Savage said: “The church is using those other rooms, and we don’t want to disturb them,” he said.

The overnight shelter is strictly seasonal, with closure planned for March 31.