EAGLE COUNTY — Justin Fillmore and his dog Parker had no shelter from the storm when the snow arrived Thursday.
The homeless man and canine were hanging out outside a local gas station. Fillmore wasn’t waving a sign asking for money, and when asked, he said he hopes to find work locally. He came to Colorado from Washington to try something new and he recently arrived in Eagle County after spending some time in Colorado Springs.
Fillmore said his current situation doesn’t tell his whole story. He noted that just because you see a rich person, it doesn’t mean that person will always be rich. Homelessness is like that, he said.
He also talked about how much he loves his dog.
Down on their luck
We don’t see a lot of people like Fillmore in Eagle County. When we talk about homelessness here, and combatting it, it’s a different discussion than what is taking place in Denver and other major cities along the Front Range.
But a lack of vagrants doesn’t mean that there aren’t homeless people in this valley. For the most part, they are employed residents who can’t find a place to rent and end up patching together temporary solutions to get by as they negotiate the difficult local housing scene. That’s a very different situation from the chronic homelessness issue in major metropolitan areas where people make a life on the streets.
Each year, the Colorado Balance of State Continuum of Care conducts a point in time study of the homeless population in Colorado’s non-metro and rural counties. During even-numbered years, the CoC conducts a sheltered PIT count. During odd-numbered years, the CoC conducts both a sheltered and unsheltered PIT count.
According to the 2017 survey, the most recent year for an unsheltered count, Eagle County had just two instances of chronic homelessness among respondents of the survey. Those two instances represented 28.6% of the respondents of the survey in the county. The date for the point-in-time count was the night of Tuesday, January 24, 2017.
In the 2018 survey, which only conducted a sheltered PIT count, Eagle County had zero instances of chronic homelessness among respondents — although it should be noted that Eagle County has no dedicated, full-time homeless shelters.
Statewide, the data from the 2017 survey showed a 12% increase from the last sheltered and unsheltered count in 2015. In each year’s survey, it’s always noted that the point-in-time count provides only a snapshot of homelessness on a single night in January, and that due to the transient nature of the homeless population and the large geographic area of the survey, it is extremely difficult to capture all homeless individuals.
While the survey shows that chronic homelessness is low in Eagle County, there are vagrants in this valley. Sometimes they are people whose resources simply ran out when they hit Eagle County. Sometimes they are people who have fallen victim to circumstances that have left them without lodging, transportation or even food. Sometimes they are battling behavioral health issues. And, sometimes, they are people who are engaging in a money-making proposition.
Whether they are residents or transients, there is help here for people who are down on their luck.
“Our original motto is we help who comes to our door,” said Dan Smith of Vail Valley Salvation Army. “We repair a lot of vehicles, we provide a lot of temporary housing. We provide a lot of food and we buy a lot of gas for people.”
“It’s always amazing to me how many people travel across the country with just the amount of resources they need, with no excess at all,” said Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger. These people end up stuck in Vail if a car breaks down or they miss their bus.
“When we have someone who needs to get somewhere who doesn’t have any money, we work with the Salvation Army to get them a voucher and them on the Greyhound bus to where they going,” Henninger said.
That’s the philosophy in Eagle as well.
“We do have a very giving community,” said Eagle Police Chief Joey Staufer. “Normally when we are dispatched to a call, it’s someone who is broken down and our officers make their best efforts, after a discussion with the people. We have been able to help those people out, probably at a success rate of nine out of ever 10 individuals.”
Law enforcement personnel said it is unusual that someone who is truly broken down and stuck in the valley will end up spending hours at the Interstate 70 interchange, waving a sign and asking for help from strangers.
Smith noted that sometimes helping people in need is more nuanced than simply handing over groceries or fuel, or especially, cash.
The help they need
“In my experience, if you don’t ask for help, the help offered is useless,” Smith said. “If people don’t say that, everyone involved is wasting their time. Some people aren’t looking for help, but for a handout.”
Local social media often outs vagrants who situate themselves at a location, carrying a sign asking for money. Facebook postings will warn residents that the person was doing the same thing previously in a different local community.
“It’s common knowledge when you get into a metro area you will continually see the same individuals, on the same corners, throughout the year,” said Staufer. “We don’t see that frequently in Eagle, but we do see that happen.”
“There are definitely people who abuse the system. We don’t have a good solution for that,” Henninger said.
Henninger said helping vagrants move along is the most practical assistance that the Vail Police can offer. He noted there are no homeless shelters in the valley, and during the winter, it’s dangerous for people who don’t have protection from the weather. That said, Henninger is also aware that giving someone a bus ticket to Denver or Grand Junction is just pushing the issue to another jurisdiction.
“I have gotten phone calls from other police departments asking why are we sending them our problems. Actually, we try not to do that,” he said.
Henninger said his officers check to make sure there are no outstanding arrest warrants or other issues before they send a homeless person away on the bus. But if someone is determined to stay in the area and they aren’t breaking the law, the cops cannot force the individual to leave.
“As long as they aren’t on private property and as long as they aren’t impacting any roads or services, there is nothing more than we can do,” Staufer said. “Most frequently, when we do find transients on private property, it’s because we get a call from the owner asking us to move them along. Some of those contacts do end up with an arrest, most often on an outstanding warrant.”
Henninger and Staufer said that each vagrant case is different. Sometimes officers can help and sometimes people don’t want the help that is offered. But in general terms, both agreed with the advice of Facebook posters — be careful about the help you offer.
“I discourage people from giving money to panhandlers. If you feel guilty about that, you should give money to the Salvation Army,” Henninger said.
Vail Daily photographer Chris Dillman contributed to this story.