Giving Thought: COVID-19 triggers a creative solution for the homeless

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

Editor’s Note: The Giving Thought column, which was appearing twice-monthly on Tuesdays, will appear on a weekly basis on Thursdays as the community continues to recover from the pandemic and ACF’s role is increased.

What happens to Coloradans who’ve been ordered to “stay at home” but don’t have a home?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, public officials have wrestled with this question, and the answers vary by jurisdiction. In the upper Roaring Fork Valley, the Aspen Homeless Shelter runs a “day center” on Castle Creek Road, where local homeless people can take a shower, do their laundry and grab a hot meal, but there is no year-round building where they can spend the night. St. Mary Catholic Church in Aspen offers overnight shelter for four months of winter, but the pandemic, and the necessity of social distancing, eliminated that option in March.

Part of Pitkin County’s multi-pronged approach to homelessness in the COVID-19 era has been to establish a “safe outdoor space” for homeless locals on county property near the Brush Creek Park and Ride lot. (Read the Aspen Times Weekly feature published May 21 on the camp.)

Just south of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus stop at the Brush Creek stoplight, an orderly village of tents and small recreational vehicles has taken shape. The county has provided portable bathrooms, wash stations, water barrels, solar showers and bear-proof trash containers. Aspen Skiing Co. contributed fencing to separate and delineate the individual camps. A designated “camp host” works with public officials, including local law enforcement, to ensure all health-related rules are observed and that all residents feel safe.

“There are 15 or so people living out there successfully,” said Nan Sundeen, the county’s human services director. “The primary purpose is public and individual health. We needed for the people experiencing homelessness to have a home they could rely on and feel safe in.”

Braulio Jerez, the Aspen Police Department’s human service officer, visits the encampment several times per week and feels the project has been a huge benefit to both the homeless population and the community.

“I would say there’s been an 80 percent decrease in our department’s contacts with our typical homeless population — for things like sleeping in public, open container violations, trespassing and so forth,” Jerez said. “I’d say the camp has served its purpose, by having all these individuals centralized in one location. There’s food, water and shelter being provided. And whatever needs may come up, it’s easy to address when it’s one location.”

Jerez says the residents have pitched in to build their own shower and a gazebo for shelter from the summer sun. “These are just normal people who have run into problems and are trying to get their lives together,” he said. “A lot of them were working before COVID came along. They all want to work.”

Vince Savage, executive director of the Aspen Homeless Shelter, has long advocated for some kind of year-round, permanent shelter, but hasn’t found a building. He can’t say yet whether the current encampment might have a future life, but he’s glad to see it succeeding.

“Just by chance and necessity, we were forced to give something a try,” Savage said. “It shows that this kind of thing can work, even on a shoestring budget and a shoestring operation out there.”

Nobody is declaring victory over homelessness in the valley, but the “experiment” out at Brush Creek does offer lessons for local officials to consider when society is no longer in the grip of COVID-19.

“The success of that encampment is something Pitkin County really needs to think about,” Jerez said. “There’s a social contract out there that everyone signs, and we really haven’t had many issues or disagreements.”

Does the encampment have a future? Could it be winterized and house people longer-term? Or could it point the way toward a permanent, brick-and-mortar solution that enables the residents to live somewhat independently? Nobody has those answers yet, because nobody knows what the legal and public-health environment will look like even three months from today, let alone next year.

For the time being, however, there is a cautious optimism about the project. And we could all use a little optimism nowadays.

“There are so many ifs, it’s just really hard to predict,” Savage said. “We’re not going to end homelessness, but we can do something.”

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.


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