Giving Thought: There are many faces of homelessness in Roaring Fork Valley

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

When you hear the word “homeless,” what comes to mind? I’ll guess it’s a disheveled man who sleeps by the road in a makeshift shelter or asks for handouts on a street corner.

“Homeless” is an accurate description for those recognizable people who live on the street, but they represent only a quarter to a third of the people who, at any given time, are temporarily or permanently without a home.

Roughly two thirds to three quarters of the homeless population, both locally and nationally, is comprised of people who have encountered some kind of obstacle — medical, domestic, financial, employment-related — and will eventually find their way back to stability.

Counting the homeless is extremely difficult, but a point-in-time study conducted statewide on a single night in January 2019 found 2,302 homeless individuals across the state, 21 in Pitkin County and 71 in Garfield County. The study itself, conducted by Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, says the numbers probably underrepresent the true population.

If the people sleeping under the bridges, predominantly men, can be called “chronically homeless,” then the more typical case in the Roaring Fork Valley could be called “situationally homeless.” Picture someone who is gainfully employed but loses his or her housing because of a divorce, domestic violence or a dispute with a landlord. It could be someone unable to find housing because it’s not available or they can’t afford it. A health emergency also can pack a wallop for a household that subsists from paycheck to paycheck.

In Pitkin County, while we may not see many “out on the streets,” the number of people who are just steps away from homelessness is higher than you would think. Seasonal employment and the high cost of living already make it challenging to make ends meet. One unforeseen financial crisis can mean the difference between living in an apartment and living in your car.

Catholic Charities in Glenwood Springs helps people who are about to be evicted or who are struggling to find housing. Currently, the organization is receiving six to 10 requests a week for housing assistance, a level not seen in a few years. According to Marian McDonough, the regional director, several of these requests are from people who moved to the area for jobs but haven’t been able to find housing. And with the cooling temperatures, people who had been living in their cars are now seeking to come indoors.

And it’s not just adults who experience homelessness, our youth do, too.

In the 2018-19 school year, our region had 242 children and youth between the ages of 5 and 18 who were designated homeless. There also were an additional 21 children under the age of 5 in this category.

Schools define homelessness as children who lack a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence. This could mean they are living with their families in motels, camping or renting rooms from others without a lease. It also could mean that the youth themselves are couch surfing or sleeping in cars, parks or public spaces. These unaccompanied young people are the most vulnerable as they are dealing with the crises of homelessness without a safe, supportive parent or guardian.

“Many teens feel like people assume they did something wrong or bad to get into this situation,” according to Kyle Crawley, executive director of Stepping Stones, a Carbondale-based program that provides a safe and structured environment for youth who are facing a variety of challenges including homelessness and abuse.

“Often times though the reality is that there is not one single decision made by the youth that led to homelessness,” Crawley said. “Instead, years of instability or living in an undesirable home environment makes leaving home their only choice.”

The overall point is that the faces of homelessness in our valley include a lot of people who look more familiar than you’d expect. Given these various kinds of homelessness, tackling the issue involves multiple solutions, coordinated efforts and people with multiple skills. It will take a collective effort — some are already underway — to develop a system where both the chronically homeless and the situationally homeless can find the support they need to get back on their feet.

In the meantime, there are several organizations in the valley whose missions are to help the homeless by providing shelter, food and various health and human services. Aspen Homeless Shelter, Feed My Sheep, Catholic Charities and Stepping Stones are just a few. We can be assured that these organizations are working hard every day to connect people to resources, to serve a hot meal and to help people find a warm bed, even if it’s just for the night.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.