Homeless among mansions
ASPEN Shawn Philpott didn’t plan to be homeless in Aspen.The 32-year-old Olympia, Wash., native said rough circumstances over the past few years found him out on the street, but he’s been able to find couches to crash on, stay warm, eat well and generally get by.That all ended when a January arrest landed him in the Pitkin County Jail, where he took time to talk about his experience of being homeless amid some of the highest priced real estate in the world.”It’s the easiest place to live,” Philpott said of Aspen. “People help you out, everyone’s friendly and you never go hungry.”His first job here six years ago was an assistant to a street performer, and he lived in a treehouse on squatter’s land on top of Smuggler Mountain.”I made just enough to eat and get by,” Philpott said. “It was a whole commune,” he said of the many trailers on top of the mountain. He was displaced when the area was sold to the city in the late 1990s.
“I lived in employee housing for a while,” Philpott said. Then he bounced from place to place, living with a girlfriend, then a rental in Snowmass Village and later Basalt, where a deal went sour and he found himself outdoors, he said.”It doesn’t mean I’m sleeping out in the gutter,” he said. For more than a year and a half, he’s been “couch surfing” and finding warm places to crash.”You gotta rest your head somewhere. You gotta stay warm,” he said. Some nights it’s with friends, some nights in area churches or in the lobby of the county jail.Asked why he stays in Aspen with it’s frigid winters, Philpott said there’s always something to do and dealing with the cold is a lot better than being on the street in a dangerous city like Denver.Officials from the faith community, in cooperation with city and county agencies, set up a temporary homeless shelter at St. Mary Catholic Church in December. But while he said it’s a good idea, Philpott said it’s not for him.”I’ve always been a loner,” Philpott said. He stayed one night at the church, but said he doesn’t like cramming into a room with a bunch of other guys snoring away.”It works for a lot of people, especially women … but a lot of people on the street who party and drink a lot,” he said. And the shelter maintains a strict “no drinking” policy.
Philpott spends his days working odd jobs in construction or doing snow removal. Some days he keeps warm watching movies in the library, he said.A young woman once gave him $100 out of the blue, and he said people are generous so he can always find enough to eat at McDonald’s.”The police are sick of me,” he said, adding it is out of concern as much as anything.Philpott said he’s had good jobs and living situations, but after a while, he said, “You get sick of it.””A lot of people you wouldn’t even know are homeless,” Philpott said. “There’s a lot of work and no place to stay.”And Aspen homeless stick together, he said. “We all take care of each other. That’s how a lot of us survive.”Staying out of the cold during winter is the hardest part, he said. And while the bears don’t bother him, he doesn’t like skunks and raccoons that make camping out in the summers hard.
“It’s such a rich town … people don’t want to recognize it,” Philpott said of the many homeless in Aspen. “There are more out there than you see.””At least I’m safe here,” he said of his stay in county jail, with three meals a day, exercise facilities and TV.Life on the street is hard, he admits, but he bets a New York stock broker with three kids and a nagging wife “would trade places in a New York minute.””I do what I do to get by,” he said. Philpott is not sure what’s next, but said he might go home to Washington and needs to get his “ducks in a row.””It’s a lot easier to throw a rock at somebody than it is to throw ’em a rope,” Philpott said. “I never intended to be on the street.”Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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