Troublesome Aspen transients pose dilemma for their helpers
ASPEN – Pitkin County is home to an estimated 45-50 transients, but it’s four or five of them who have officials treading a fine line between enabling and abandoning them.The dilemma became pronounced over the last two months as several homeless people had repeated run-ins with the law. Their offenses generally fell under the category of petty offenses and misdemeanors: Violating open container laws, trespassing and disorderly conduct are the typical transgressions. “Obviously [their] going to court is not a consequence for them to stop what they’re doing,” said Linda Consuegra, assistant chief with the Aspen Police Department. These same repeat offenders also are frequent visitors to the Day Center in the Schultz Health & Human Service building. The Day Center provides one free meal daily, along with other such complimentary essentials as a washer and dryer, haircuts, hot showers and clothing vouchers for the Thrift Shop of Aspen. And beginning Dec. 1, St. Mary Catholic Church in Aspen will serve as an overnight winter shelter for the homeless. Aspen Community Church provides services as well.Consuegra said that issuing citations and making arrests can only do so much with some members of the local homeless contingent. As such, she said the police department is setting up a system in which it will send emails to local entities that offer support to the homeless – the Day Center and two churches – when transients run afoul of the law.Upon receiving the notices, the entities will determine whether to suspend support for the offending transients, Consuegra said. A night in a warm bed in the Pitkin County Jail, along with some warm meals as well, isn’t a catalyst for them to behave, she said. But temporarily stripping them of their perks – such as free meals and clothing vouchers – might prompt them to think twice before they misbehave.”Jail is not a deterrent,” she said. “What’s going to make an impact is taking away their services. Most people are responsive when something is taken away from them. We can only give them so many warnings and arrest them so much.”Indeed, agencies need to know when the people they’re helping are posing problems outside their walls, said Vince Savage, director of Valley Information and Assistance, which runs the Day Center. “We’re trying to work with both the courts and police to try and identify the problems that come up,” he said. “And we have been addressing them, but we need to know who these offenders are and what’s going on.”Savage added that “I think there’s a misperception about who our clients are, that we serve them no matter what. That’s not the case: We serve them based on them being able to abide by the rules. We’re not faulting these people for having mental-health issues, but they have to find a way to live here that’s not too disruptive.”Last Wednesday, three transients appeared in Aspen’s city court to answer criminal charges. One of them, 51-year-old James Griebling, pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and no contest to an open container citation. The disorderly conduct citation stemmed from a Sept. 21 episode at Junk restaurant in downtown Aspen. There, Griebling and a new transient to town, Jimmy Baldwin Jr., allegedly had been harassing customers, and management ordered them to leave.Police tracked the two to East Cooper Avenue, where they were “standing in the middle of the street” yelling at each other, according to a police report. As an officer directed Griebling toward his patrol vehicle, “He threw a water bottle towards Baldwin,” the report said.When police found alcohol in the water bottle, they cited Griebling for an open container violation and disorderly conduct. Griebling faced jail time, but city Judge Brooke Peterson, at the suggestion of municipal prosecutor Jim True and police officers, ordered him to perform 10 hours of public service and get in contact with the Right Door, an Aspen agency that provides help and counseling to those with addiction and substance-abuse problems. Before Peterson issued those instructions, however, he tried to get a feel for Griebling’s problems.”Where do you live?” the judge asked.”Anywhere I can,” Griebling replied.”How do you support yourself?””Working temporary jobs.”The judge later asked: “Where you do stay in the winter?””With the homeless people in the church.””But you still have money to drink as much as you do?””I hate to say ‘yes.’ But I don’t drink that often.”Griebling later said that at one point in his life he went 13 years without booze, and “I want to get back on the right track.” He also told the judge “I’d be more than happy” to obey the judge’s instructions.Drug and alcohol abuse, and mental-health problems, Savage said, are the underlying symptoms of the homeless.”If all of our people were perfectly mentally adjusted,” he said, “they wouldn’t be homeless. And with these economic times, people are getting more stressed.”He estimates that the transient count in Pitkin County is higher than what most probably people think it is.”I can tell you that the public perception might be a half a dozen people are here that are homeless because of the people they see,” he said. “But the reality is that it’s more like 45 to 50 [in Pitkin County].”The latest wave of troublesome transients appears to be an anomaly, Savage said. Many of the homeless people are simply trying to cope with their plight without causing trouble, he said. Still, “There are some of them who are taking the attitude that nobody can mess with them,” Savage said. “But we don’t think the general homeless population is any more of an ill-behaved than the rest of Aspen, with young people and ski bums and people on vacation. “But our services are not going to be guaranteed to people who cannot operate reasonably and rationally.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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Volunteers are being sought by the city and county to serve on the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority board. Over a dozen people have applied so far and today is the deadline.