Reflecting on the past and the future of the Brush Creek Lot Safe Outdoor Space |

Reflecting on the past and the future of the Brush Creek Lot Safe Outdoor Space

More resources now available, but the temporary space won’t last forever

Aspen Human Services Officer Braulio Jerez leads one of the weekly meetings at the Intercept Lot encampment for residents of the camp and case managers to discuss updates with the camp on Thursday, April 8, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

When a team of local officials established a Safe Outdoor Space at the Brush Creek lot last April, they thought the camp for people experiencing homelessness might exist for several months through tight COVID-19 restrictions.

“We certainly didn’t anticipate that the temporary Safe Outdoor Space would be here a year later,” said Nan Sundeen, Pitkin County’s director of human services.

The first residents arrived April 14, 2020; some of them are among the dozen or so people living there today. Around 17 more of the most vulnerable homeless people currently live in temporary emergency shelter, Sundeen said.

The space was designed a short-term offering with 11 spaces intended to provide people without a home a place to follow “stay-at-home” orders in the early months of the pandemic, according to Sundeen.

Additional resources at the camp have provided far more than just a place to stay put. The camp’s infrastructure can now accommodate as many as 25 residents; the site now has access to electricity, bathrooms and a large tent for cooking and meetings.

A handful of case managers come to the camp to help residents navigate mental health and substance use challenges, and community groups often bring hot meals for the residents.

“It’s amazing how it evolved,” Sundeen said. There’s also an intangible benefit to living at the camp, she noted: “The camaraderie.”

Many people who once lived at the camp have found permanent housing, according to resident and peer support specialist Austin Kuck.

“This actually has given people a lot of opportunity,” Kuck said, in part because of its close proximity to public transportation that helps residents get to work.

But there are still substantial obstacles: though all residents have deep roots in the area and many work nearby, acquiring housing still comes with steep startup costs and requires a commitment to save enough to meet the monthly rent.

And for those struggling with addiction or other mental health challenges, finding and keeping housing is even harder. There are no easy solutions, according to Aspen Homeless Shelter Executive Director Vince Savage. He has considered a Safe Outdoor Space here for years after seeing the success of a similar setup in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The nonprofit shelter is one of a number of community stakeholders that supports the camp, providing one of a handful of case managers that visit the space.

But, Savage noted, “Case management alone is not going to cure people of the problems they have — it will help them navigate them.”

The shelter and Pitkin County officials are both part of a Housing Stability Coalition that aims to end chronic homelessness by 2025 and end veteran homelessness by 2022; a community action plan by the coalition notes a “housing first” approach that connects people to housing without barriers to entry. Those efforts are “well-meaning,” Savage said, but “I think there’s a big gap between the most basic thing … (and) the underlying problem.”

A death at the camp in February served as a reminder that even the resources available at the camp aren’t a guarantee of survival.

“That was very sad and impacted everyone,” Sundeen said. “A lot of what we talk about is how they need to watch out for each other — they always do that, but they’re aware now even more.”

Experiencing a loss like that takes its toll, according to Vince Thomas, who has lived at the camp since day one last year. In the past six or seven years, he can recall at least half a dozen other people experiencing homelessness who have died, several of them due to the cold, Thomas said.

“You’re at the mercy of the elements. …. It weighs on your mind,” he said.

In times before the Safe Outdoor Space existed, there was also the issue of property: without a designated place to keep clothes, blankets, food and other items, Thomas constantly thought about what might happen if someone were to stumble upon his things and move them or dispose of them altogether.

“Every night I had to worry that my survival equipment wasn’t there,” he said.

The Safe Outdoor Space has in some ways mitigated that, with a space where Thomas can set up camp for more than a night and with access to heaters and cooking stoves.

“For me, housing is a safe place to sleep,” Thomas said. Even so, he recognizes that it won’t last forever.

“It’s become more sanitary and more livable, but it’s a temporary situation,” he said.

The camp will last “through the life of the public health orders, plus two months to break it down” or by the spring of 2022, whichever comes first, according to Sundeen. The hard out next spring comes as transportation authorities prepare for a project to improve and expand parking at the Brush Creek lot. (The Colorado Department of Transportation owns the lot and leases it to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and the City of Aspen.)

With that transition in mind, organizers are already planting the seed to remind residents of the future. It’s not clear yet if there will be another community-sanctioned option available when that point arrives.

Change in a smaller sense could come even sooner, if the camp sees an influx in residents this summer from those losing access to emergency shelter elsewhere; that’s a possibility, human services officer Braulio Jerez noted at a camp meeting last week.

There is some worry from current residents that the influx could change the congenial dynamic.

“I am concerned, but we’re all brothers and sisters and we all take care of each other as best we can,” Thomas said. “Everybody has their limitations.”

It certainly won’t stop the current residents from welcoming people who need the space.

“You want to help everybody you can, because everybody’s somebody,” Kuck said.

Dreaming of a permanent campus at Aspen Homeless Shelter

The Aspen Homeless Shelter is in the planning process of conceptualizing a permanent campus but it it is in a very preliminary stage, according to Savage.

The shelter is still at the “drawing board” stage and is open to collaboration, Savage said. Funding and finding the land to build it remain significant hurdles in bringing the idea to reality.

“Paper’s a lot cheaper than bricks and mortar,” Savage said. “It’s easy to dream.”

Until that dream is realized, residents must begin thinking about their next steps after the space packs up.

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