Library doubles as shelter from storm
November 29, 2006
Pitkin County Library staffer say they face sometimes difficult challenges from the many area homeless people who spend the day in the Aspen building. In a big city, homeless people can go to a bus or train station on a cold day. “In Aspen, this is where they can come,” said Molly Ireland, an assistant librarian at the Pitkin County Library of the library.But homeless people sometimes cause problems in the library, she said. Many have substance abuse or mental health problems and act out, Ireland said. And library staff don’t have the skills to help and occasionally end up calling the police.”Our hope is that just us walking through will help them make good choices and respect the library staff and patrons,” Aspen Police Chief Loren Ryerson said. Ryerson anticipates more people will use the facility in the cold winter months, so his officers will continue to make regular sweeps of the building. Aspen Police occasionally eject library patrons who are intoxicated or creating a nuisance, but Ryerson says there is little to do but deal with such situations on a case-by-case basis. It is a public building and if people act according to the rules they have the right to be there, he said.”It’s just the role of libraries now,” said Pitkin County Librarian Kathy Chandler. In larger cities, libraries function as day shelters for many homeless people and Aspen’s population is nothing compared to Denver or other big cities, she said.Chandler said the library is a warm place and there are things to do – read, watch films and listen to music. She trains her employees to treat all people who come to the library with respect; she said there is “equal justice under the law” – but added her staff is stressed by the need to keep an eye on what’s going on.The homeless population waxes and wanes, Ireland said. Last summer many homeless people spent time at the library. Entering or leaving the building was like walking a gauntlet, she said. “It’s not always real comfortable.”In the wake of the March 2005 suicide of a homeless man at the Aspen Country Inn, area agencies formed a task force to address the homelessness issue in Aspen.Their conclusion: The city needs a short-term shelter to help those in crisis. A shelter is just the first step in a larger plan to provide area homeless and those dubbed “difficult to serve” access to mental health and substance abuse counseling, said Nan Sundeen, director of Pitkin County Health and Human Services.”As a community we’ve had an archaic view that ‘if you build it they will come,'” Sundeen said. But she challenged that idea, and said many of Aspen’s homeless people have been here for years and are part of the community. “The ultimate goal is to get people in touch with the services they need.”Friday night marked the opening of a temporary shelter at St. Mary Catholic Church. Father O’Brien of St. Mary is working with Brad Osborn of The Right Door, a substance abuse case management facility, to provide a simple bed and warm place to sleep at the church to homeless people. The pilot program is just phase one of a larger plan to help area homeless, Sundeen said. The county will renovate the health and human services facility in February and provide a day room where people can stay warm and come in contact with case managers and counselors.”They need a place to go during the day,” said Ireland, who represents the library at homeless coalition meetings. She hopes a new day center at the health and human services building will be a way for area homeless people to receive help.The day facility will open its doors in the spring.Sundeen hopes these first steps will start a community dialogue on the issue, “instead of this benign neglect.”Jere Rood runs Lift Up, a local agency that has been providing emergency assistance to Aspenites for 20 years. He hopes the shelter works out for the community, but said he is skeptical of the plan.Rood believes a shelter enables people to live unsustainable lives in Aspen. If you build a shelter it will encourage transients to migrate to Aspen, he said. “Case management” has been called many different things over the years, Rood said, but it boils down to trying to get people to act a certain way. Some never have and they never will, he said.”Aspen is not on the way to anywhere. You do not get stranded here. You have to want to be here,” Rood said.He believes in providing Aspen’s transients temporary, emergency assistance only, not long-range programs that, he said, simply enable.The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.