Aspen homelessness during the pandemic: What happens when staying at home isn’t an option
for the Aspen Times Weekly
On a recent evening at the Brush Creek Park and Ride, many locals began to make their end-of-day commutes home.
Some jumped on buses headed downvalley or into Aspen. Others went from bus to car to Highway 82. But about a dozen locals at the park and ride were already home, steps away from their tents, campers or cars spaced neatly apart at the far south end of the transportation hub.
“I’m very grateful to Pitkin County for giving us this wonderful opportunity to have a place to stay,” said James Hoge, a longtime Aspen resident and working homeless man.
Since early April, Hoge has worked as the manager of this temporary Brush Creek encampment, which was created by Pitkin County as a safe outdoor space for upper valley residents who need somewhere to stay during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
And while the camp isn’t ideal for the Aspen-area locals who would rather have a more permanent place to call home, it’s been a positive result of the pandemic many have expressed deep gratitude for.
Hoge has lived in the Aspen area as a working homeless man for the past 10 years, but his local roots go back much further.
Before he found himself without a permanent home — he said it was too difficult to keep up with the cost of his housing — Hoge worked as the chef at Bentley’s at the Wheeler Opera House in 1982, raised his two children here, helped construct many multimillion-dollar homes and built a lot of longtime friendships.
However, Hoge explained that even though he’s an assistant to the superintendent, labor foreman and safety officer for a valley construction company, he makes too much money to get a federal housing voucher but too little to afford other housing options.
And despite having a good-paying job but little to no access to affordable housing, Hoge isn’t open to leaving Aspen.
“I call this place my home, I’ve been here going on 40 years,” Hoge said. “I can’t think of anyplace else that I would want to live. I’m very enchanted with this valley. There’s nothing that can sour me here with me being me and me being right here. I just wish I could afford to rent a place.”
Hoge isn’t the only local in this living situation. Many homeless men and women in Aspen are employed but still unable to secure affordable housing. Other locals struggle with more situational or seasonal homelessness, mostly due to the high cost of living and because housing is often tied to employment in the Aspen area. Once seasonal work is over or a job ends for whatever reason, many people lose their homes.
But homelessness isn’t as black and white as having access to affordable housing. It also can be the result of mental illness or mental health challenges, substance abuse and addiction, and other behavioral results of — or responses to — traumatic life events, according to Vince Savage, a longtime psychologist and executive director of the Aspen Homeless Shelter. These many overlapping and often co-occurring factors make homelessness a multifaceted and difficult problem to solve.
“There’s often a reason people are homeless and that can be what I like to call attitudinal adjustment deficits. … It’s a lot more complex than people think,” Savage said.
“But there is a misconception that every homeless person is like the hardest-core chronic homeless you see in urban areas. Our people are really pretty high-functioning homeless partially because it’s so easy to become homeless in Aspen.”
For more than a decade, the Aspen Homeless Shelter has worked to keep area homeless people alive, safe and fed, according to its website. The nonprofit serves as a “gateway organization” that helps area homeless access local resources they need to transition to a more stable, financially independent lifestyle with secure housing.
Savage, who refers to himself as a sort of “renegade psychologist,” said he’s always taken on challenges that aren’t your normal “Rodeo Drive issues.”
This philosophy has taken him from talking people down from acid trips in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, to running a treatment center for Inuit and Dene people in northern Canada, to serving as the Aspen Homeless Shelter’s executive director.
“I’ll tell you this, it’s never boring,” Savage said when asked what’s kept him with the shelter for so long. “All of these guys are normal guys under their certain circumstances and most of them are pretty interesting guys and gals.”
The Aspen Homeless Shelter does not have a permanent shelter location, though it does have a year-round day center and meal program based out of the Pitkin County Human Services building, Savage explained. In 2019, the shelter served 210 unique visitors, according to county documents.
The shelter vets the homeless people it serves to ensure they’re from the Aspen area or have “strong ties,” and will expel clients who cannot behave well in the group environment, Savage said. The organization also operates an overnight shelter from Dec. 1 to March 31 each year out of St. Mary Catholic Church.
But March 11, the shelter was forced to significantly shift its operations as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
After consulting with the Archdiocese of Denver and Pitkin County officials, St. Mary Catholic Church determined it could no longer host the overnight shelter for public health and safety reasons. Savage said he and his staff had “to scramble to figure out what to do.”
Luckily, since most locals began to work from home in March as the result of the pandemic, Savage said the shelter was able to gain the county’s support in converting two of the Human Services’ building meeting rooms into sleeping areas. The county is even paying to have the rooms professionally disinfected each night to ensure those sleeping there are well protected from the coronavirus, Savage said.
Savage also mentioned some of the other pandemic procedures put in place at the shelter, like barring any new clients beyond those who were there when the stay-at-home order began — though meals are available for pick up and are delivered to the Brush Creek camp — and trying to keep clients contained to the Aspen area to limit the potential spread of COVID-19.
That means people at the Brush Creek camp are not allowed in the day center or overnight facility except for showers two times a week, Savage said.
As a result of these stricter rules, the Aspen Homeless Shelter clientele numbers during the pandemic have gone from the 20s and high teens to the single digits, Savage said. The shelter will be allowed to operate out of the county building through the month of May, and will most likely cease its overnight operations June 1.
One local who has been utilizing the temporary shelter during the pandemic is Doug, a man who has been homeless in Colorado for about 20 years. Doug did not wish to share his last name with the Aspen Times Weekly.
Doug said he’s been working between Aspen and Glenwood Springs for several years, but has always had “the best luck” in Aspen. In November, Doug was hired as a janitor for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority at Rubey Park, which he said was a good job with good pay that he really enjoyed.
But by mid-March, Doug said his hours with RFTA were cut down to just a few each week, as the Rubey Park station was closed due to the COVID-19 crisis, leaving him with little to do.
“They cut me down to two-and-a-half hours a week, so I basically had to quit. But things are starting to open up again now and I’m hoping for another janitorial job because that way you don’t have to deal with people too much,” Doug said, smiling.
Outside of losing work, Doug said the rest of his day-to-day life hasn’t been all that impacted by the pandemic. He’s utilized Aspen Homeless Shelter services since November, and hopes to stay at the temporary overnight shelter as long as he can.
“I’m glad I’m up here. It’s not a bad place to be for quarantine,” Doug said. “I’m not too worried for my health either because I’ve got the shelter.”
Without access to computers at the library, Doug said it’s been hard to search for jobs but that hasn’t kept him from trying. He said he usually walks around town looking for open positions posted in the newspapers or on business doors, and has even considered purchasing a lawnmower so he can help with local landscaping.
Regardless, Doug said he feels confident he will find something in the near future and is just grateful to be in Aspen.
“To me, I’ve gotten really lucky,” Doug said of the overnight shelter. “We’ve got it pretty good here.”
SETTING UP CAMP
Beyond housing the temporary day and night center for the Aspen Homeless Shelter and its clients, Pitkin County Human Services officials also felt it important to create a safe, outdoor living space for homeless residents.
“This pandemic is not anything we trained for or anticipated and the primary focus of it is people are safer at home. Our people experiencing homelessness don’t have a home,” said Nan Sundeen, director of Pitkin County Human Services.
“There were some complaints that they were riding the buses because they had nowhere else to go, there are no bathrooms open, no showers, no facilities for them to go where they might continue their lives, … so from a community safety and individual safety aspect, it was imperative for us to create this safe space for them and for the community.”
This safe space or encampment includes portable bathrooms, socially distanced camp or vehicle sites separated with the help of crowd control gates, bear-proof storage containers, a camp shower and food provided by the Aspen Homeless Shelter and Aspen Family Connections, among other various campsite donations.
Sundeen said the ability for the county to act quickly and develop the camp stems from the work the county’s multi-stakeholder Pitkin County Housing Stability Workgroup has done over the past two years to end homelessness in the county.
According to the workgroup’s Community Action Plan to End Homelessness, affordable rent at minimum wage in Pitkin County should be $577 a month. Fair Market Rent — the amount needed to pay the gross rent plus utilities of “privately owned, decent and safe rental housing of a modest (non-luxury) nature,” as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — is nearly triple that at $1,725 a month.
This means many people in the Aspen area spend upward of 60% or more of their incomes on rent. The Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield tri-county region also has a 2,100-unit shortfall of housing units for low- to moderate-income households, per the 2019 Roaring Fork Regional Housing Study.
Given these stats and other local, state and national data, the workgroup identified a handful of short- and long-term strategies for the county to pursue. These strategies include expanding case management and mental health access for people experiencing homelessness; creating a year-round, 24/7 emergency shelter; offering short-term housing coupled with case management to help stabilize people experiencing homelessness; and creating a long-term affordable housing program with intensive services and without preconditions or barriers to entry.
“We’ve really been taking some very aggressive actions to try to end homelessness and to have a sense of who our homeless are and what they need,” Sundeen said of the county’s working plan to end homelessness, which was first released in late January.
“I think all of that work has positioned us to move really quickly in March and April and to create supportive plans for the homeless amid the pandemic.”
Over the past two months especially, Sundeen said county human services staff have worked really hard to help locals who lost their incomes because of the pandemic-related shutdowns pay for rent and keep their housing. Roughly 80% of the approximately $2 million county COVID-19 relief funds have gone to support rent or shelter costs, Sundeen said.
But despite this local support and the state and federal unemployment support many Aspen area residents are utilizing to get through the pandemic, Sundeen said she and her staff feel they may start to see more people lose their housing as a result of the economic fallout of COVID-19 by mid-summer.
“We really have been taking strong actions to try to prevent homelessness right away,” Sundeen said. “Nobody knows where this is going, so we’re just trying to figure out what else people need and how to sustain any support separate from unemployment and stimulus money.”
The COVID-19 relief fund and the Brush Creek camp are the county’s main housing-related supports in place to assist locals during the pandemic as of early May. So far, the camp has run smoothly, according to Sundeen and Braulio Jerez, health and human resources officer for the Aspen Police Department.
Jerez said he hasn’t received any complaints related to disturbances or misconduct at the camp. He also said he and Sarah McNamara of Pitkin County Public Human Services check in on the camp multiple times a week to see how many people are utilizing the space and what their needs are.
“I’ve never thought there was a need for a law enforcement presence out there; it’s more about having an individual they can bounce ideas off of and talk through things with,” Jerez said of his weekly camp check-ins.
Every person who stays at the Brush Creek camp is required to sign a social contract with guidelines and regulations, and must check in with Hoge each day. So far, an average of 10 to 15 people have been staying at the Brush Creek site each night.
Jerez said there are strict rules against allowing people from outside Pitkin County to stay at the camp, as the goal is to provide a safe stay-at-home space that helps mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Because of this stay-at-home culture amid the coronavirus pandemic, Jerez said Aspen police have had less daily and weekly contacts with the area homeless population, and that the overall success of the encampment has been somewhat of a surprise to some people.
“The success of our encampment has raised eyebrows for sure,” Jerez said. “We’ve never been under these circumstances, of course, but we’ve never had an opportunity to try something like this out. This is all new and an experiment to an extent, and I think the experiment has been successful.”
Jerez said he hopes the success of the encampment contributes to pushing some of the identified short- and long-term strategies to end homelessness in Pitkin County more toward becoming reality, but that only time will tell how it impacts future decision making.
For Hoge, the fact that the encampment exists and that he is able to help oversee its operations is both a shock and a big compliment.
Hoge said he served on the Pitkin County Housing Stability Workgroup for a while and suggested the idea of creating an outdoor encampment as a solution to ending homelessness, but that it never took hold.
Savage also has brought up the idea to the workgroup, with both men emphasizing that a managed camp with shared facilities could enable homeless people to be self-sufficient in a safe, contained way.
“I remember telling them, ‘This is a no-brainer for you guys,’” Hoge said of starting an encampment. “This was a hard choice they finally had to make and I’m very proud of the county for making it, even if it’s temporary for now.”
Like Jerez and Sundeen, Hoge also has deemed the camp a success, with no rule-breaking or other major issues thus far.
“As you can see this is not a tramp camp, there aren’t any beer cans laying around. Everything is orderly,” Hoge said, pointing to the patchy grass and dirt areas where tents were put up and cars were parked. “As far as I know, we have full marks.”
As Hoge talked about the camp from the driver’s seat of his vehicle, softly playing rock music and smoking a cigarette, the relaxed and easy-going nature of the safe space was evident.
A few men played catch with a football. Others talked and ate dinner beneath a makeshift canopy tent. The rest kept to themselves at their designated campsites, some walking over to join the group every now and then.
“One thing I’m thankful for is all these guys that I know. I love and respect them and I think they put the same thing back at me. It’s like dribbling a basketball,” Hoge said. “That’s one thing that works for me here because I have the love and respect of my fellow troops and they know there’s not one thing I wouldn’t do for them.”
While many of the people staying at the overnight shelter and Brush Creek encampment are “familiar faces,” there are some people staying at the camp who have recently become homeless, or have nowhere else to go.
One camp resident, who referred to himself as “Bob,” said he is a longtime Aspen local who moved back to the valley in his RV right when the COVID-19 crisis started. He was able to find a job, said he “has another place but someone else is living in it,” and doesn’t mind being in his “home on wheels” at the Brush Creek camp.
Dale Hughes, another camp resident, said about three years ago after his rent amount started to outstrip his paycheck total that he decided to go “leaseless,” living and splitting rent with people but not bound to a rental agreement. This move allowed Hughes to afford to go to a Denver Broncos game and do “all the things (he) couldn’t do when (he) was broke paying rent.”
But going “leaseless” also is why Hughes said he’s at the Brush Creek camp, as he’s not a legal tenant of any local property and doesn’t want to get any of his friends in trouble for housing him.
And Landon Hartstein, a Los Angeles native who has worked and lived in Aspen for six years, was forced out of his home after his landlord refused to extend his lease through the pandemic, forcing him to buy a camper and move into the Brush Creek Park and Ride.
If he doesn’t find a more permanent living situation before he’s rehired to his hotel job at the Aspen Meadows Resort in mid-June, Hartstein said he might have to leave the valley.
“This is not something I’m happy about. I’m definitely not thrilled with my situation, but it could be a lot worse,” Hartstein said. “So from that perspective, I’m grateful they created a parking lot where I can sleep. … If I can say anything about this whole pandemic, I’ve never lived in a place where I’ve felt so taken care of by the community.”
This diversity of situations and contributing factors that have left these people homeless or without a permanent place to stay are exactly why Jolanta Weiss, a case manager with the Aspen Homeless Shelter, said it’s so important not to judge people.
Weiss moved to Aspen from Poland as a single mother of three nearly 20 years ago. She raised her youngest son in Aspen and experienced what it was like to work at least two jobs and move from one affordable housing unit to the next, eventually working her way into a deed-restricted home.
For 12 years, Weiss worked in beauty salons and as a caretaker for an Aspen home on Willoughby Way. For about three years, she’s worked at the Aspen Homeless Shelter, now as a full-time case manager on the night shift who is known for her “real” mentorship and superb cooking.
“It’s a great contrast,” Weiss said of transitioning from Willoghby Way to the Aspen Homeless Shelter. “But I love it, there are a lot of rewards. You can help motivate clients, help them come onto the right track, but you also have moments when you need to step back and disconnect because there are a lot of people who have heavy-duty baggage from the past.”
On a recent evening in the day center common area, Weiss talked about some of the success stories she’s seen and some of the challenges she’s faced working with the shelter.
Weiss has helped clients find jobs, access mental health or substance abuse resources from other organizations if they need them and secure housing if possible. She said she’s tried to impart her strong work ethic to the people she helps at the shelter and to encourage them to never give up on their goals.
But a lot of times, Weiss said she finds herself serving as a mother figure more than anything else as she listens and cares about each person, makes sure they’re well-fed and shows them the love they may have never received.
“What I’ve learned from this is they are people. They are really good people. They just were not lucky to have parents or one parent or just someone who would care for them,” Weiss said. “Besides the other contributors, most of them just never had anyone to care for them or love them.”
But while Weiss says she’s grateful for the opportunity to help Aspen Homeless Shelter clients like Hoge and doesn’t understand why they look up to her so much, Hoge says people like her and Savage are the reason he’s persevered over the past decade, moving from a “backpack warrior” into a “wheel-estate.”
“Believe me, I would have been in dire straits here and there and everywhere without them,” Hoge said of Savage and the Aspen Homeless Shelter. “And we’ve had a lot of gracious people come and donate things to the (Brush Creek) camp. I’ve got a lot of thank-you cards to write here.”
Yet Hoge and many of the locals both at the Brush Creek camp and the overnight shelter don’t just acknowledge the community’s gratitude. They also understand the stigma that surrounds homelessness. They know when people look down on them and that many couldn’t last more than a few days in their shoes.
But beyond why they are where they are or how they got there, Hoge hopes the success of the Brush Creek camp and the positive interactions he has with Aspen residents willing to listen can shift their perspectives, eliminating the stigma and proving that many of the area homeless are simply just Aspen people.
“The only thing that’s wrong with us is we don’t have a home. Most of us are good, honest, hardworking people that were raised with family values,” Hoge said. “We have a heart, we have a past and we have a future. I’m just like, where is it? Give me some future.”
“We’re all caring and kind, loving people out here. We’re all brothers and sisters.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to accurately portray the fact that St. Mary Catholic Church based its decision to stop hosting the Aspen Homeless Shelter’s overnight shelter off of guidance from the Archdiocese of Denver and Pitkin County officials.
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