Catholic church opens its doors to homeless
November 22, 2006
Homeless residents looking for a safe, warm place to sleep this winter have a new refuge at St. Mary Catholic Church. From early December until the end of February, the church will provide the option of shelter and a bed for the estimated 30 to 50 homeless people in Aspen.”No one chooses to be homeless,” said Father Mike O’Brien, priest of St. Mary. “We can buy them a bus ticket and make them someone else’s problem, or get them the help they need.”Since the 1970s, St. Mary has accepted occasional overnighters, but beginning Friday, Dec. 1, the church will accept lodgers each evening. The church doors will be open until about 9 p.m. daily, and they’ll offer a night’s rest on simple mattresses in some of the church class rooms until 7 a.m.”If they’re drunk or stoned, we don’t let them in,” O’Brien said.While there is a small percentage of the working poor who’ve run into bad circumstances and need help getting back on their feet, O’Brien said most homeless have substance-abuse or mental-health problems. The church’s charity is, in fact, part of a larger plan aimed at providing access to mental-health and substance-abuse services.Since the March 2005 suicide of a resident of the Aspen Country Inn, city and county agencies, from health and human services to law enforcement and non-profits, have joined forces with Aspen’s faith community to discuss potential solutions for people wracked by poverty and substance abuse. The most pressing need, they decided, was a short-term shelter to house the city’s homeless. And the temporary shelter at St. Mary is the first phase of the larger plan that came out of those meetings.The shelter is an opportunity for case workers from the Right Door and Valley Information Assistance (VIA) to provide people with information about drug and alcohol abuse and mental health services. The Right Door is a substance-abuse, case-management agency, and VIA works to help the mentally ill and the “difficult to serve.”O’Brien admits they can’t help everyone, and some don’t want help. But for those who ask and are willing, the church and its partners will provide needed assistance.”A lot of people are spending time at the library and some are acting out and acting inappropriately,” said Brad Osborn, director of the Right Door. His agency will work closely with those who want substance-abuse help by offering access to detox and treatment facilities.Vince Savage of VIA said it takes more than handing someone a pamphlet and a phone number; homeless and people in need require advocates to find help.VIA is a wing of the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation that provides case management and support for the “difficult to serve” in the community. Last year they did a study in Aspen and found that 30 homeless people live in the community.”This is the group of people that mental health and social services find difficult to serve,” he said. Many who lose their housing or have mental-illness or substance-abuse problems simply fall through the cracks. Many homeless are wary of the system and don’t want to go on the roll of social services, he said.The biggest frustration is getting in touch with those in need, and a central shelter would be a start, Savage said.”The people we deal with have been around here for years,” he said. They are part of the community, and while some just need a first month’s rent and security for an apartment, others need prolonged assistance.Chuck Cram is the pastor of the Aspen Community United Methodist Church. For many years the church doors were left unlocked at night and local homeless could take advantage of the heated community room. But because of some recent incidents and liability issues, Cram has been forced to lock the church at night.”It’s not a faith community problem, it’s a city problem,” Cram said. He has mixed emotions about locking the doors – love and compassion are virtues of the church, he said – but it is really the job of the community, just like any other city, to tackle the homeless problem.”I’m glad that the faith community is starting to get the ball rolling, but the community at large is ultimately responsible.” He called the shelter program a stopgap measure but a step in the right direction that might lead to broader solutions.After the shelter opens Dec. 1, there will be a volunteer workshop on Wednesday, Dec. 13, at 7 p.m. at St. Mary’s. Osborn said that volunteers are vital to the success of the community-wide effort, and all are welcome.Father O’Brien said St. Mary needs to raise money to support its efforts, which includes the need for a full-time staff member who will stay overnight in the church.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is email@example.com.The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.