Homelessness on rise in Aspen, prompting action | VailDaily.com

Homelessness on rise in Aspen, prompting action

Nancy Lofholm
The Denver Post
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN, Colorado (AP) ” Dandy Lee picks his way down a steep snowbank in the headlight-punctuated dark, then ducks under a bridge as cars hiss and rumble by on the highway above.

He flicks his penlight toward spots of light on the far hillsides ” the lit-up windows of mountain mansions.

“That’s where the rich are, over there.”

Then he aims it toward two tents tucked in a pitch-dark corner of the bridge supports.

“And this is where I live.”

Homelessness is not a social problem often associated with one of the world’s premier playgrounds for the rich and famous. A long-standing joke about Aspen asks, “What do you call a millionaire in Aspen?” Answer: “Homeless.”

But the real homeless are here, under the bridges and camped in the woods. They warm themselves around the downtown fire pit and hunker down in the library when the weather is bad. They make their way between two shelters ” a church where they can sleep and a room in a government building open to them during the day. It seems that the same jagged mountain beauty and embarrassment of riches that draw the privileged in their private jets also tug at those who stick out their thumbs and carry everything they own on their backs.

“Hey, if I’m going to be stranded, I might as well be stranded in Aspen ” the best place in the world,” said Tom, a smiling, burly homeless man who came by bus to Colorado from Oklahoma for an oil-field job that fell through. He was left with $50 in his pocket and a hankering to see the legendary town of Aspen.

There are also the local homeless. Simply the enormous cost of living can tip working people into homelessness. A family of four can make $75,000 a year in Aspen and qualify for aid for the needy.

Aspen’s homeless problem came into focus four years ago when a statewide count revealed there were 52 homeless people in Aspen. Local officials had expected to find five to 10.

“We did not have our eyes open nor did we have our hearts open. We hadn’t seen these people,” said Nan Sundeen, director of the Pitkin County Department of Health and Human Services. “It blew us away.”

It also prompted action.

St. Mary Catholic Church had been providing piecemeal help for the homeless by letting them sleep in the church on cold nights and giving them some meals.

Now, a formal night shelter is open at the church from November through March.

The Right Door, a county-run substance abuse counseling program, began offering a day shelter at the Pitkin County Health and Human Services building in 2007.

And this fall, the Aspen Homeless Coalition incorporated as a nonprofit and hopes to eventually have a year-round shelter and more services for the homeless.

Currently, an average of 15 homeless people show up at St. Mary when the doors open at 9 p.m. They sign the guest book, claim a cot, line boots along a heater to dry and stash their belongings in blue plastic bins.

Those seeking shelter on a recent night included an itinerant teacher of Hebrew from Denver, a Western State College student who lost his tuition funding, an out-of-work roughneck, a silent elderly woman who has been on the streets here as long as anyone can remember, an ex-convict who identifies himself as a preacher and two people in their early 20s who look a little stunned to be out of the frigid night and in this warm church.

“It baffles me why they would come to 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains in the winter. They think the streets here are paved with gold, but in the winter they are paved with snow,” said Richard Shively, who runs the shelter on weekend nights.

Those drinking or using drugs are turned away after a couple of warnings, and the priest here, Father Mike O’Brien, has a breathalyzer to settle any disagreements about that. There are other rules that include no smoking, cussing or violence.

After all were quietly in their cots for the night recently, John Keleher, an owners’ representative at some of Aspen’s prominent developments and a volunteer at the shelter, quietly talked about the people sleeping in the nearby rooms. He said he believes many are mentally incapable of keeping a job. And some suffer from an unreal concept of money similar to the one found among the uber-rich.

Keleher told the story of a homeless man who earned money shoveling snow and did so with his feet freezing in ratty tennis shoes. Instead of buying warmer footwear with his earnings, the homeless man purchased a week’s worth of gondola passes. He spent a week riding up and down the mountain with the world’s glitterati.

Laura Drexel, manager of the day center, said many of the chronically homeless have chronic substance abuse issues ” another shared trait between the haves and the have-nots in a town where the privileged party with abandon.

Drexel said the Right Door program attempts to help by guiding them into detox and rehab programs. It also offers onsite counseling and aid with job, food-stamp and identification applications.

The homeless are allowed to hang out in a warm room, take showers, do their laundry, use a phone and have a hot dinner brought to the center early each evening from the nearby Aspen Valley Hospital.

On a recent day, eight men hungrily tore into quiche, fruit, bread and cookies served in Styrofoam boxes. Then they headed out into the cold for the three hours before they could get into the night shelter. One skied to his camp in the forest. Dandy Lee made the long trek to his tent.

The numbers of these people without homes is only going to increase, local officials say, because the economic downturn has hit Aspen like everywhere else.

Some young people who came from foreign countries for ski jobs that didn’t materialize have ended up homeless. Construction workers laid off from jobs in other parts of the country came to Aspen thinking it would still be the land of plenty ” a place like the big rock-candy mountain Depression-era hoboes dreamed of. But a number of construction projects have been halted.

There has been a 30 percent increase in food-stamp requests and a 20 percent increase in public-assistance caseloads over the last year.

The list of job postings on a board at the day center has shrunk from four pages to one-and-a-half. The jobs, including pizza delivery, snow shoveling and census taking, don’t pay nearly enough to add up to subsistence wages in Aspen.

Dandy Lee is happy because he has a temporary job doing a customer-satisfaction survey on the public transit buses.

But he is not kidding himself about his prospects in this lap-of-luxury town, especially after being kicked out of the shelter for drinking.

“I like this place, even though I can’t afford to be here. Isn’t it strange,” he noted, “when there are so many people here who have way more than they could possibly ever, ever spend?”

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