The Hope Project: A single father’s search for not-so-affordable housing
December 29, 2015
Editor's note: This is the last piece in a four-part series of stories created jointly by The Aspen Times and the Aspen Community Foundation. The Hope Project aims to raise awareness of all the emergency services available to needy families in the Roaring Fork Valley.
It's hard to come up with $3,500 for first month, last month and deposit when you're raising two kids and making only $13 to $15 an hour.
But that's what Juan Pablo Soriano faced in fall 2013. His landlord had told him to vacate his rental unit in El Jebel because the property had been sold. He had a seasonal housekeeping job at the Aspen Meadows, but the only affordable housing available in the area required a large payment up front.
"I was in a hopeless state," said the single father of two school-aged children. "I couldn't find anything."
Soriano's desperation led him to start asking questions and knocking on doors. A visit to the Eagle County office building in El Jebel connected him to Pitkin County Health and Human Services, where he learned that money was available to needy locals in transitional housing situations.
"What I've learned in my day-to-day life is that I lacked communication," Soriano said through an interpreter. "But as soon as this problem presented itself and I didn't have a place to live, I started reaching out to people who would be able to help me."
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With assistance from Pitkin County and Catholic Charities, an arm of the Archdiocese of Denver with offices in Glenwood Springs, in October 2013, Soriano was able to rent a subsidized apartment off Harmony Road, just across Highway 82 from Buttermilk Ski Area. His two children, 11-year-old Marilyn and 10-year old Kevin, entered the Aspen School District and Juan Pablo pulled in money where he could by showing up every morning at temporary-employment agencies in the upper valley.
"We managed," he recalled, with a laugh. "Sometimes it was four hours (of work per day). Sometimes it was six hours. I had to take out a small loan to meet our needs."
Despite living in plain view of Aspen's world-famous ski mountains, Soriano is a member of a permanent class of low-income workers who form the bottom tier of the local economy. They are the dishwashers, housekeepers and construction laborers who buttress the resort economy in high season but struggle to make ends meet in the offseason. Thousands of affordable housing units exist in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, some owned by private companies for their employees and some run by government agencies or the Aspen-Pitkin County housing authority for the benefit of any qualified worker, but there aren't always enough units to meet demand.
"These are the kinds of situations we see — someone's seasonal housing or seasonal job ends and they need thousands of dollars to get into what's called affordable housing," said Becky Rippy, a case manager at Catholic Charities, which helped 161 Roaring Fork Valley individuals and families find and pay for rental housing last year. "The seasonal situation is a real challenge for some of our clients. They're trying to maintain year-round employment but it's difficult to do."
True to the seasonal theme, Soriano lost his Harmony Road unit the following spring to make room for incoming Aspen Music Festival students. This time, Catholic Charities and Pitkin County stepped in, not only to help Juan Pablo find housing but also to create a resume showing his work history and to show him how to fill out online job applications.
By May 2014, Soriano ended up in a nearby apartment on the opposite side of Harmony Road. He, Marilyn and Kevin remain there to this day. He is still stitching together various jobs from winter to summer and in between. Over the last three years Soriano has done kitchen work at the Ritz-Carlton Club, housekeeping at the Aspen Meadows, landscaping and irrigation for the City of Aspen, dishwashing at The Little Nell, and too many day jobs to name.
Soriano is a hard worker and a quick learner, but what most people remember most about him is his sunny, friendly demeanor.
"He has a big heart," said Tito Marquez, Soriano's supervisor in the Aspen parks department. "I can say I'm very proud of him because he's raising two kids, he's both their father and their mother, and he's a very good example."
At this point, it appears Juan Pablo's situation has stabilized and that he's found secure housing. Still, he's been navigating the Roaring Fork Valley's seasonal economy for more than a decade, and he takes nothing for granted.
"I've come to the conclusion that whatever God gives you, you should be happy with," he smiled.
Fortunately for Juan Pablo and thousands of other locals who live essentially from paycheck to paycheck, help is available from organizations like Catholic Charities and Pitkin County to smooth out the inevitable bumps in the road.
"I am living proof that there is help out there," Soriano said. "I was told to seek help and I went. If someone has a particular worry or affliction, you can easily seek help with these institutions."
The Aspen Community Foundation and The Aspen Times collaborated on a series of stories collectively titled "The Hope Project." The Emergency Assistance Fund has been established at the Aspen Community Foundation to help families like Juan Pablo's in times of need and to support agencies like Catholic Charities.