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Community groups addressing homelessness

Nearly everyone who attended a meeting Thursday on homelessness has dealt with people living in cars or tents, or searching for a place to sleep. Representatives from a range of area agencies and groups – Aspen Counseling Center, the Pitkin County Library, the Forest Service, senior services, churches, Aspen police and numerous downvalley social services – are discussing what to do about it. They are groups that don’t normally communicate regularly, said Nan Sundeen, director of human services for Pitkin County, but they all have a stake in homelessness. St. Mary Catholic Church, for example, serves roughly 30 homeless people. “I think we had 50 overnights in the last calendar year,” pastor Michael O’Brien said. The conversations – Thursday’s was the largest so far – have been taking place since Robert W. “Bill” Seawell, scheduled for eviction from his senior housing complex, hanged himself after attempting to burn down the building. It was an event that made some people question if Pitkin County is doing enough to address homelessness. There is no center in Aspen where people without homes can take shelter or get a shower or do laundry. The library essentially acts as a shelter. “They are waiting when we open the door in the morning,” County Commissioner Mick Ireland said. “We provide a safe environment.”Sundeen suggested that perhaps a part of the health and human services building that the hospital leases could serve as a center.It’s not a simple issue. Nor are all homeless people the same. Some people come seeking seasonal work. Some are drug or alcohol addicts. Some have mental illnesses. Some of the homeless have been living in the valley for years or decades. As Sundeen, who organized the meeting, said, “We want to find a way to better care for them.” However, it is clear Aspen does not want to put out a welcome mat to homeless people. The problem with giving too much help, or helping in the wrong ways, is it leads to dependency with little hope of self-sufficiency. “If you deserve Aspen, you’ll make it,” said Jere Rood, who works for the nonprofit LIFT-UP. “Our major philosophy is teaching you how to wipe your own ass.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com


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