Giving Thought: Pandemic presents obstacles, opportunities for area’s homeless

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold amounts of suffering and disruption, and we’ll probably tell those stories for the rest of our lives.

But it is also true that we are learning from this experience and, in many ways, improving and upgrading the way we do things.

For years, a group of local government and nonprofit officials has been working to end homelessness in the Roaring Fork Valley, chiefly by helping the local homeless population to find work, housing and, eventually, stability. Through a serendipitous series of events, including the onset of COVID, local authorities find themselves in a better position than ever before to help locals without a place to live, and to reduce the negative aspects of those individuals taking shelter under bridges, in forests and other areas in and around local towns.

“Where there’s a community will,” said Nan Sundeen, director of Pitkin County Human Services, “there’s a way.”

In March , when COVID-19 first descended on Colorado and drove most of us indoors, the opposite happened to the local homeless. Because of COVID-related concerns, the winter homeless shelter at St. Mary Catholic Church in Aspen had to close its doors.

As a temporary substitute, local officials established what they called a “Safe Outdoor Space (SOS)” on an expanse of flat ground near the Brush Creek bus stop and intercept lot off Highway 82. This tent encampment, outfitted with showers, wash stations, bathrooms and other amenities, opened in April and proved successful for at least a portion of the local homeless population.

Now, with the virus spiking for a third time since spring and Aspen’s traditional indoor accommodations unavailable, officials have decided to winterize the Brush Creek site and make it available to about two dozen individuals at a given time. It remains a temporary fixture, but it may endure until the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 are lifted.

“The SOS is not a shelter, but it is a nice stair-step,” Sundeen said. “It has provided our case managers with a place to meet (the homeless) people, where they’re starting to feel a little more stable. They’re warm out there, they have bathrooms, they have each other and they’re not being hassled. For the most part, the people out there are working and trying to move forward.”

So, the temporary solution has proved to be a valuable component of the overall plan, even though it was never envisioned as a long-term answer. Meanwhile, about $800,000 in federal grant money has flowed to Pitkin County in 2020, based on the strength and clarity of its Community Action Plan to End Homelessness.

“Working on the strategic plan often felt slow and arduous,” Sundeen admitted. “But we had our goals, and then the pandemic hit — and we’ve been able to actualize parts of our goals because funding became available.”

At this point, a team of case managers working for various local organizations including the Aspen Homeless Shelter have coordinated their efforts to support and advise the homeless population. The Homeless Shelter still runs a “day center” where people experiencing homelessness can drop in to do their laundry, take a shower and enjoy a hot meal, and Executive Director Vince Savage is optimistic about the future of both the SOS and the overall support system for the area’s homeless.

“We’ve all been working together and solving problems like never before,” he said.

The various stakeholders in the homeless discussion still envision a brick-and-mortar shelter someday, and a menu of pathways for people without housing to find their footing. But now, with both funding and what Savage calls “an unprecedented amount of collaboration” among the involved parties, their hopes feel more attainable.

“Really what we have now is a rich array of services,” Sundeen said. “In a year or so, it’d be great if we had a winter shelter working as a temporary solution, and then we could be rapidly re-housing people who are homeless.”

The overall goal is to help the homeless toward stable housing, from which they can begin to build an independent life. And the outlines of this system are, for perhaps the first time, coming into focus.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.