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High cost of homelessness in Aspen

Charles Agar
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Helping area homeless people has far-reaching effects ” all the way to the taxpayer’s pocket, according to some local officials.

Whether it’s the cost of police response or an overnight stay at the jail, Director of Pitkin County Health and Human Services Nan Sundeen said chronic homelessness costs the community.

But recent efforts such as the temporary overnight shelter at St. Mary Catholic Church in Aspen ” which recently was extended for an extra month and likely will move to the Community Church ” as well as the day room at the Health and Human Services building on Castle Creek Road have meant some homeless people are getting the help they need and staying off the public dime.



“It pays to take care of the chronically homeless,” said Sundeen, who cited the case of a California man whose needs gobbled up about $1 million in public funds. “I believe that it is not only morally the right thing to do, but it’s economically the right thing to do.”

Case managers are making progress by having regular contacts with shelter guests, increasing a sense of trust, Sundeen said.




“We spend a lot of time trying to prevent people from becoming homeless,” Sundeen said, including stepping in to prevent an eviction. “Because eviction in Aspen means homelessness.”

Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor said recent efforts to help homeless people in Aspen are “a very positive thing.”

He’s seen a slight reduction in calls and a few people get help ” mostly by going to larger communities with more resources ” and called the homeless shelter and area case managers “invaluable resources.”

“Unfortunately, there are some in the homeless population that are just not interested in that,” Pryor said.

Pitkin County jail supervisor Don Bird said recent efforts to help homeless people is taking off some pressure.

It costs about $125 per day to keep someone in the jail overnight, Bird said, and when an inmate needs medical treatment, the cost goes up and taxpayers foot the bill.

Often in the past, homeless people slept in the lobby of the jail, Bird said, but that situation has improved since the shelter opened.

“What the shelter does is it takes the pressure off other places, and we’re just another one of those places,” Bird said.

For many area homeless people, the jail is the end of the line, Bird said.

“I think that lots of times out of frustration, the police will arrest them and charge them so they don’t have to deal with them anymore,” Bird said.

He doesn’t like to release people from the jail to the street, and Bird said he is pleased there is a shelter where people can stay warm.

“I feel a lot better about doing that than to send them out the door to nothing,” Bird said.

Officials at the Pitkin County Library, however, have not seen much relief from the many homeless people who take up residence in the library during the day. In fact, library officials are crafting a new policy that would forbid anyone from sleeping in the library.

The Aspen Valley Hospital spends about $2 million each year on charity care ” a figure that includes anyone who applies for free care and is unable to pay a bill, not just homeless people. But hospital officials said the cost is not much of a burden.

“Relative to our overall budget [of $60 to $70 million] it’s reasonable for a community hospital,” said Ginny Dyche, Aspen Valley Hospital spokeswoman. “That’s part of our mission. We provide charity care to people no matter if they cannot pay.”

Very little of the hospital’s charity care goes to homeless people and no public funds go to their charity care, Dyche stressed.

Sundeen, who is a member of the governor’s coalition for the homeless, said Pitkin County has a lot of community resources and is ahead of other rural areas in helping homeless people, but there still is not enough Section 8 housing, until people can find a stable place to live.

“Ours will always be a Band-Aid approach,” Sundeen said.

She is working with a public affairs graduate student studying the night shelter in the hope of establishing a base-line to see the impact of the shelter as a community benefit, Sundeen said.

cagar@aspentimes.com

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