‘Ski bum’ gets new meaning
December 18, 2006
Aspen, CO Colorado”What do you call a millionaire in Aspen?” Answer: “Homeless!”It’s a bad joke that has floated around town for years, serving as a statement that Aspen has gone to the greedheads. But Aspen is not immune to the fact that the socioeconomic gap in our country continues to widen. The separation of classes in our valley is painfully apparent – just as it is on the west side of Los Angeles, where I just spent the past week and called home for five years before moving back here.On Friday, I was on the Venice boardwalk where a hilarious vagrant charmed me out of $5 by singing “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, help me get drunk. Help a wino out and be a hero!” He was very grateful, and said he would buy Yellow Tail Chardonnay and drink it on the beach.The next day, I stopped at City Market on my way home from the airport. The Salvation Army had four volunteers blowing Christmas tunes on their horns outside the store. Jane, a longtime resident who lives in a brown van covered in tape, was just as delighted as I was. Jane told me that she is a recipient of the Salvation Army and I should be sure to put some money in the red kettle. I figured I’d cut through the red tape and give her $5 directly. Jane was most appreciative and said she would share it. I told her to keep it for herself.She told me she used to live in L.A., where she went to college – Occidental, a highly reputable educational institution – ranked among the top 10 percent of liberal arts colleges in the country whose graduates have earned Ph.D.s.The experience seemed surreal since a few days before, I was stepping over vagrants every few feet in L.A. I usually never give money to the homeless, especially since I was asked about 40 times a day when I lived there. But I think the season of giving has gotten to me.There’s been a publicized debate recently in Aspen about its growing homeless population. Specifically, a few “regulars” are wreaking havoc at the library, a warm refuge from the cold and a place to pass the time. As a result, they disrupt the experience of others by acting out or coming in loaded. Pitkin County Librarian Kathy Chandler is absolutely correct in her quote to The Aspen Times (Dec. 2, page 1) that in larger cities, libraries function as day shelters for many homeless people.Santa Monica, the most affluent city on L.A.’s west side, has about 2,000 homeless people roaming the streets every day. They are drunks, drug addicts, mentally ill, down on their luck or just plain lazy. They panhandle, they defecate and urinate on city sidewalks, and scare people with their antisocial behavior. The Santa Monica Library is a regular gathering place for hundreds of vagrants, and hundreds of residents would tell you they are scared to go there, especially with their children.Last year a task force was formed to address the homelessness issue in Aspen, concluding that it needs a short-term homeless shelter, with eventual social service programming that includes mental health and substance abuse counseling. It’s planned to be open by the spring and be located in the health and human services facility.It’s a good idea – the compassionate and right thing to do. But I hope people recognize that our desire to help our fellow man does not come without consequences. Despite that some officials say it’s an archaic view to think that “if you build it, they will come,” they will. A shelter will absolutely attract more vagrants here.The reason Santa Monica is known as the “home of the homeless” is because its municipal government is extremely liberal and compassionate when it comes to caring for the less fortunate. Homeless people know that they can come to Santa Monica, get a free meal, sleep on the beach and basically do whatever they want.I’m just as skeptical of a day shelter as Jere Rood who runs LIFT-UP, a local agency that has been providing emergency assistance in Aspen for 20 years. I agree with him that we should provide Aspen’s transients temporary, emergency assistance only – not long-range programs that simply enable. I’ve been watching that boondoggle in Santa Monica for years while the tax-paying residents feel the results.I didn’t move away from the real world and back to the Aspen bubble to reduce my quality of life. We should proceed with caution on this shelter and make sure that work, counseling and rules are attached to all services. There should be no free lunch – especially for those millionaire bums.Sack has compassion for the homeless, but not for those who are just bummin’ around town looking for a free ride.
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