Category: press

Cross Currents: Aspen Homeless Shelter

  NOV 1, 2017

One of the first questions that people ask Dr. Vince Savage, executive director of the Aspen Homeless Shelter is: There actually are homeless people in Aspen?

Well, yes, and those who are homeless here can find food, resources and accommodations at the Aspen Homeless Shelter.

Dr. Vince Savage sat down with Cross Currents host Christin Kay to talk about homelessness in Aspen. Also in the studio were Bill Hodges, president of the shelter’s board, Simon Chen, board member, and Catherine Ann Provine, managing director of the Aspen Chapel. The homeless shelter’s overnight program will be at the Aspen Chapel this winter.

Alycin Bektesh has reported on homelessness in Aspen. She joined the conversation, as well.

Aspen Homeless Shelter needs $70,000 for Winter programs

New location for Aspen Homeless Shelter this Winter

With renovation construction closing St. Mary Catholic Church, Aspen’s winter homeless shelter will be hosted by another church east of town, the program’s director said Friday.

The Aspen Chapel near the roundabout has agreed to provide space for the homeless shelter from Dec. 1 to March 31 this coming winter season, said Dr. Vince Savage, director of Aspen’s homeless shelter program.

“It looks like their congregation is very much interested in helping us out,” he said, though officials at St. Mary have made it clear they want the shelter back when renovations are complete.

Attempts to reach officials at the Aspen Chapel and St. Mary on Friday were not successful.

And while the problem of a place to host the shelter has been solved, the problem of how to pay for it has not, Savage said.

“The real anxiety is whether we’re going to have it all,” he said. “We can’t make it this winter without some significant donations.”

Aspen’s homeless shelter program encompasses the winter overnight shelter, the Day Center program at the Pitkin County Health and Human Services Building and their hot meal program at the day center, Savage said. Altogether, it costs about $70,000 a year to run, he said.

“I’m a little more anxious about that than anything else,” Savage said.

A fundraiser is being held today at Ajax Tavern for the shelter and other programs featuring a barbecue competition among chefs from Aspen’s top restaurants. Tickets are still available on the Little Nell’s website, he said.

The number of people who utilize the shelter ranges from the teens to the high 20s and can even reach 30 people during busy parts of the winter, Savage said. The shelter accepts men and woman over the age of 18, though the rules “are pretty rigid,” he said.

People must register, which they can do when they arrive, and they must check in between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., he said. The shelter won’t accept people after 10 p.m.

“The purpose here is sleep,” Savage said. “It’s a place that’s warm and level.”

No food or showers are available, and those who show up can’t be drunk or belligerent, he said. Bathrooms are available.


News In Brief
Aspen Daily News Staff Report
Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Coat and sleeping bag drive
The Aspen Homeless Shelter, in collaboration with J. Crew, is collecting winter coats and sleeping bags for people in need.

Drop off gently used coats or sleeping bags at the J. Crew at the Mountain store, 205 S. Mill St., near the corner of Hopkins, and receive a coupon good for 25 percent off a purchase.

The response to the local coat and bag drive has been so strong that J. Crew increased its coupon from 20-25 percent, which is good until Nov. 19.

“As the Aspen nights get longer and colder, homeless men and women need our help the most,” according to a statement by Vince Savage, executive director of the Aspen Homeless Shelter.

“With the need on the rise this year we hope you reach deep this holiday season and share your precious resources with those who are less fortunate,” it continued.

The shelter is also now accepting cash donations for the upcoming winter season. Checks may be mailed to: Aspen Homeless Shelter, 405 Castle Creek Road, Suite 12, Aspen, 81611.

For more information, call 925-1342.

Cross Currents-The Little Nell and Aspen Homeless Shelter


The Little Nell is hosting a benefit dinner for the Aspen Homeless Shelter on Saturday, May 14 with food from Biju’s Little Curry Shop of Denver.

Guests are May Selby from The Little Nell Hotel, Vince Savage of the Aspen Homeless Shelter and Rabbi David Segal.

To learn more about the Aspen Homeless Shelter, click here. To learn more about The Little Nell, click here.

Vince Savage, Aspen Homeless Center’s director and resident philosopher

Vince Savage’s office isn’t exactly a portrait of neat and orderly. Post-it notes are peppered about, a DVD of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is in plain view on a bookshelf, a framed photograph of the Dalai Lama hangs beneath a shelf of files, binders and boxes. Relics, books, coffee mugs, papers, notebooks and other items fill in the rest of the area. Bare spaces are a scarce commodity.

Some people couldn’t, or wouldn’t, work in such cluttered conditions. Having a tidy office wouldn’t suit Savage, either, even though the humanistic psychologist subscribes to structure.

“I always find it ironic that a guy like me — a self-styled and counterculture person — can help people walk the straight and narrow,” he said. “Through structure is freedom. If you can live by the rules, you can have a lot more freedom.”

Savage’s office is akin to a mini museum of psychology theories and practices, spiritual and religious texts, self-actualization and a touch of pop culture — from a pseudo driver’s license of Walter White, the meth-making chemistry teacher in “Breaking Bad,” to a poster of Doc Savage, the pulp magazine character from the 1930s and ’40s. That’s also Savage’s nickname among professionals and users of the Aspen Homeless Shelter. With a Ph.D from the University of Northern Colorado in counseling psychology, he likes to play it up.

vms.aspentimes“I’m pretty egomaniacal,” joked Savage, now in his 60s. “I need to see my picture.”

Savage’s road to the homeless shelter has been filled with social work, activism and academia. The son of an investigative reporter who was a professor of journalism at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, Savage grew up in a college town that shaped his early views on life.

As a teenager during his counter-culture hippie days, he worked for Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. When he attended the University of Indiana, one of Savage’s roommates and fraternity brothers was Mark Spitz, the nine-time gold-medalist Olympic swimmer. Savage’s travels took him to the Middle East in 1967, where he provided aid after the Arab–Israeli war, also known as the Six-Day War. He saw the horror of war and decided, “This isn’t politics. This is psychology.”

Savage has worked with drug addicts in the Canadian Arctic, as well as those in Aspen in the 1980s at a rehabilitation center for alcoholics and habitual users of cocaine. He also taught at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

In 2004, Savage became director of Valley Information and Assistance, which was funded by the now-defunct Aspen Valley Medical Foundation. The purpose of Valley Information and Assistance was to help people who had addiction and health problems. Valley Information eventually spun off into the Aspen Homeless Shelter, a nonprofit with Savage at the helm. After the medical foundation dismantled, the homeless shelter was left on its own to find funding.

Savage had to focus on raising funds to keep the shelter solvent, which it remains today. Its budget last year was $295,000; this year it’s $308,000.

Its services include day center at the Health and Human Services Center by the hospital. There, homeless guests can stay warm and enjoy hot meals, some of which are provided by The Little Nell. During most of the winter, they can stay overnight at St. Mary Church. And, most recently, the Aspen Community Church opened its doors to the homeless, who can stay there overnight until the end of the month.

Savage said he regularly hears from people who are surprised Aspen has a homeless population. The homeless shelter aids some 20 people, but not all of Aspen’s homeless population uses it.

The shelter’s clients have been authorities, stockbrokers and bankers. Others are just normal people who made poor life choices. Some are plagued by mental-health issues and substance-abuse problems, Savage said.

But a common thread among them, Savage explained, is that most have strong ties to Aspen.

“One thing people don’t understand is that a majority of them are locals,” he said. “Our people are born in Aspen, graduated Aspen High School or have been around here for decades.”

Savage can be strict — people under the influence of drugs or alcohol aren’t allowed in the Day Center and can’t use the church’s overnight services.

“There’s always this tension between the bleeding-heart liberals, the well-meaning people and the people like me who see the value of structure and limits,” he said. “I’m as big a bleeding-heart liberal as anybody, but I’ve also see the damage people can have with total freedom. Sometimes they have to pull up their own bootstraps.”

There was the time Savage bought a van for Jane Patterson and Michael O’Gara, two Aspen transients who ran into a plethora of legal issues and problems in the 2000s. Savage caught grief for it; the pair’s drinking issues had been well chronicled in the local newspapers, and here Savage was, buying them a vehicle to drink and drive in. But Savage felt they needed a push-start. The two now live in Denver. O’Gara has sobered up and is living on his own, while Patterson resides at the Beacon Place, a transitional living quarters for homeless residents.

Savage said Aspen needs emergency transition housing for those who are abused, homeless or have addiction problems, among other people. He envisions it as a multifaceted service.

“You can’t put the Response victims (of domestic abuse) with the homeless or the drunks,” he said. “But we’ve got to have a multifaceted thing. It could be done.”

Savage, who also runs Beaver Lake Retreat in Marble, said the Aspen Homeless Shelter’s core mission is to provide safety and security.

“We don’t want anybody in Pitkin County to succumb to the elements,” he said. “And working with this group is tremendously enriching because of the personalities of these folks. They’ve got survival instincts, and they’ve got their own sense of status and belonging.”

Aspen Country Day School engaging with community

Editor,“What are you doing for others?” This question, which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “life’s most persistent and urgent question,” inspired the 238 students at Aspen Country Day School during a day of community engagement on Monday, Jan. 18. Children and teachers spread out all over town with projects that ranged from cooking for a dinner for the homeless to visiting with seniors at Whitcomb Terrace.

Activities spanned all grades; kindergarteners baked dog biscuits for pets awaiting adoption, and eighth graders met with Dr. Vince Savage at the Aspen Homeless Shelter. Seventh graders spent time preparing for their June service project in the Sacred Valley of Peru with the World Leadership School. This initiative is part of the new “Learn Outside the Bubble” program at Country Day, which seeks to foster a deeper understanding of the responsibilities of global citizenship beyond our small community here in the Roaring Fork Valley. It was an important day of learning for all children and adults on our Castle Creek campus and beyond.

Country Day sincerely thanks members of the community who helped make this special day possible. Dr. Savage was generous with his time at the homeless shelter. Allison Daily, director of Pathfinders, explained the organization’s mission to ACDS sixth graders, then helped coordinate preparations for a dinner for the needy and actually delivered all the food the children made at the kitchens of the McAniff, Caine, Hostetler, and Cherry families. Lysa Reed documented the day with photos posted on We also thank Seth Sachson and the entire staff at the Aspen Animal Shelter for welcoming our second graders.

Third graders wish to send a special thank you to Carolyne Heldman and Tom Egan at Aspen Public Radio, who helped them tape a reading of the “I Have a Dream” speech and aired interviews with the children. At the base of the gondola on Monday morning, third and sixth grade classes led a public art event where they asked visitors about their own dreams of a better world. We thank Mike Kaplan, Carolyn Barabe, Buck Erickson, and Matthew Hamilton of the Aspen Skiing Co. Sixth graders also thank the Aspen City Council for the opportunity to speak about their plans during public comment at a council session earlier in the month.

Engaging fully with the community that surrounds us is part of the joy of learning here at Aspen Country Day School. With the help of many partners in the nonprofits, families, and local businesses of our valley, we will continue to encourage children to consider their sense of purpose in the world around them and to ask, “What am I doing for others?”

Carolyn Hines

Aspen’s homeless look for early-morning alternatives to McDonald’s

At 6:50 each morning, homeless guests at St. Mary Catholic Church must leave because of the upcoming 7 a.m. mass. In the past, they would typically go to McDonald’s to warm up and get a bite to eat and a cup of coffee, said Vince Savage, who runs the Aspen Homeless Shelter.

But now that the Aspen McDonald’s is out of business, the transients must find another go-to spot during the frigid winter mornings. The library is a popular hangout but doesn’t open until 9 a.m.

The homeless shelter has about 20 to 23 users, Savage said, adding that there are probably 40 to 45 homeless people in the Aspen area.

“They used to be able to walk over to the McDonald’s and get breakfast,” Savage said, noting that Paul Nelson, who operated the Aspen franchise, provided the shelter with meal vouchers for the homeless folks.

“It was a nice thing to do,” Savage said, “McDonald’s showing it was socially conscious.”

At the outdoor fire pit on East Cooper Avenue on Wednesday, a few homeless folks huddled around the flames to stay warm. One of them, who asked to not be identified, said he enjoyed many warm mornings at McDonald’s. Now he hops the bus or walks to the Aspen Valley Hospital cafeteria, he said.

Michael Rainier Meehan-Keefe, 21, said he couch surfs around town and doesn’t use the Aspen Homeless Shelter’s services, which also includes a day center at the Health and Human Services building. McDonald’s was one of his early-morning spots to get warm.

“I’d have coffee and warm up,” he said.

Savage said he received a report from hospital security that there had been an increase in homeless people using the cafeteria since the McDonald’s closure.

“They said it was no problem, but they’re keeping an eye on it,” he said, adding that, “I think Aspen Valley Hospital is probably the second best deal in town for a meal.”

Hospital spokeswoman Ginny Dyche, however, said the cafeteria operator hasn’t noticed a surge in homeless customers in the wake of the McDonald’s going out of business.

“Homeless folks do come to our cafe for free coffee during meal times,” Dyche said in an email. “They occasionally buy a meal, as well. I understand on Saturday mornings we started seeing an increase of visits a couple of months ago (probably related to weather?). As far as seeing an increase since McDonald’s closed, the director of the department says she really hasn’t noticed that.”

High interest, no answers for Cdale homelessnes

The newly formed Carbondale Homeless Assistance has generated strong interest as it plays trial and error trying to find the best way to provide for people stranded in the freezing cold.

A “discover as you go process” is the only way to build such an organization from scratch, said Vince Savage, executive director of Aspen Homeless Shelter, who advised the Carbondale group Wednesday night.

Carbondale Homeless Assistance’s Facebook page is up and running with nearly 200 people joining in just the first few days.

First the group needs to figure out the scale of Carbondale’s homeless problem, then members should assess their available resources, said Savage.

Aspen Homeless Shelter offers a place to stay during the coldest months of the year, a hot meal each day and a 365-day-a-year facility with access to showers, washers and dryers and phone and Internet access for job searching.

But that level of service is not necessarily right for Carbondale, said Savage.

The group can start by forming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so that when it raises money, people know what their donations will be used for, he said.

Aspen Homeless Shelter started with a group of people wringing their hands much like the people in Carbondale Homeless Assistance, said Savage. “But you don’t have to have a entire program figured out before you get started.”

Local government will jump in once something good is happening, but group members shouldn’t expect the town to cross all the t’s and dot the i’s, he said.

Luckily, the number of Carbondale’s homeless is relatively small. Lynn Kirchner, who’s been spearheading the effort, said there are only four people with whom police consistently deal throughout the year, though that number grows during the summer.

The bottom line is to keep someone from dying this winter on Carbondale’s streets, said Robert Fullerton. He also suggested creating a “street sheet,” a list of available resources in the area that would be publishing periodically in the area’s newspapers.

Also, getting local law enforcement to join in is an important step because officers are in frequent contact with the homeless, said Savage.

The group is also looking for a fundraising venue, such as a website that would allow people to donate online.

But figuring out what services the group wants to provide will be central because people will want to know specifics of what they’re donating to, said Kirchner.

Whatever the money goes to, Kirchner stressed that people should buy what a homeless person needs rather than give them cash.

Even if the group is looking for a temporary warm space for when the weather drops to potentially deadly temperatures, finding the right location will be a big hurdle.

At the meeting Wednesday, the group was considering paying for hotel rooms that the homeless could use – an approach that could get people off the street immediately.

But by Thursday afternoon Kirchner felt that approach was a dead end. The hotels have already had bad experiences with some of the homeless in the area and were reluctant to open their doors to an organization that couldn’t cover the liability of a trashed room, she said.

Turning to the faith-based community might be the best option, said Savage. But even if a minister is willing, many churches have a board of trustees that has final say on building uses.

Each faith community will have to decide for itself whether serving the needy is a part of its mission, but for most it is, said Savage.

Carbondale doesn’t need a full-blown shelter, and maybe the best approach is simply buying the homeless bus passes to places with shelters like Glenwood Springs, said Kirchner.

“One doesn’t have to build an ark when all you need is a canoe,” said Savage.

This is no formula for helping the homeless because everyone is different, said Savage. “They all come with their own array of experiences and attitudes – and pride.”

Homeless in Paradise

by Julia Ely, Special to the Aspen Daily News

Editor’s note: When Aspen High senior Julia Ely wanted to do some good for her community, she turned last year to the Aspen Homeless Shelter and its director, Dr. Vince Savage. Thinking she’d be tasked with mundane chores such as serving soup, handing out blankets, folding letters and stuffing envelopes, her experience instead turned into something else altogether. Savage urged her to research the problem of homelessness in the Roaring Fork Valley – in a highly personal manner.

In Savage’s words, he wanted Ely to undertake an “individually personalized case-study methodology, echoing the research methodologies of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.” That would help to answer how a person comes to be homeless, and the effects of such a traumatic experience. And what are the homeless like? Just how scary or dangerous might they be?

“Julia glowed at the prospect of wading into personal stories, or was it perspiration from anxiety over getting ‘down and deep’ into an individual homeless person’s nitty-gritty facts of living and staying alive?” Savage wrote.

Months later, Ely approached the Aspen Daily News. Here is what she found.

Being homeless in Aspen, one of the most abundant places on earth, seems ludicrous and unthinkable, but it is a reality. As a student encouraged to perform community service, I went to the day center of the Aspen Homeless Shelter to lend a hand.

I met Savage at the Pitkin County Health and Human Services Building across from Aspen Valley Hospital. His small office, crammed with papers and books, was dominated by a 1975 movie poster of “Doc Savage,” a superhero of a 1930s and ’40s magazine. I later realized that Vince Savage, whose top priority is ensuring no one dies in Aspen or Pitkin County from being homeless, is also a superhero.

The Aspen Homeless Shelter has three programs: the day center and dinner program, which are in the human services building, and the winter night shelter at St. Mary Catholic Church. The day center has a bathroom, shower, washer, dryer, telephone, computer, a fully equipped kitchen, fax machine, office supplies, a television, and some comfortable chairs to rest and regroup. A person can use these facilities to clean up so they can look for housing and jobs, and be able to keep them. Temporary-job services routinely pass by to offer work, and Vince and the case workers help with that, often on a crisis basis.

While on the tour of the small facility, I met a former lawyer, a college student, a carpenter, a property manager, a bus driver, and a cook. Some had lost jobs and housing, some had physical and mental health problems, and others had been involved in accidents. I began realizing just how many different types of people are homeless. The tour revealed instantly that the stereotypical homeless person, the raggedy panhandler or beggar, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Savage suggested that I interview the homeless and tell their stories to help the community understand who they are and what happened to them. Remembering how many of us, including me, avoid people we think are homeless, I was skeptical about the project. I warily looked at the large hepatitis and AIDS warning sign on the refrigerator door. He assured me that it was a precaution we should all keep in mind when using public places.

I bought a tape recorder, prepared my questions, practiced my approach, and set up in one of the nearby conference rooms. The first person I interviewed was Kurt, and he was absolutely nothing like I had imagined: well-dressed and very normal looking. He was articulate and competent. I could not believe it.

This is Kurt’s story, and those of three others. The names of the interviewees have been changed to protect their privacy.

He’s in his late 30s or early 40s, and has been working steadily for some time and sleeping in his car at night. He hides this fact from his employer and co-workers to avoid being fired or shamed because it has happened before. Close to his family, dreaming of a better life – like the one he had years ago – Kurt saves his money and enjoys the respect he gets at his property maintenance job. He has had full child custody since his son was an infant, and his mom moved nearby to help out.

He avoids other homeless people, believing a large number of them are involved in drugs and alcohol. To Kurt, homelessness does not mean being lazy or wanting to be dependent on others. He is just someone for whom the recession of 2008 has not ended.

“It never in my wildest dreams occurred to me that I would be living out of my car,” he said. “I lived mostly in a big city and had a great job, making good money.”

Staying in places where it is legal to park, Kurt tries not to bother anyone. However, he said he is embarrassed and “feels like a criminal, living a lie because it is not legal to live in your car.” Kurt talked about how many things we take for granted, including “the ability to hang your clothes so they don’t get wrinkled. … a mirror, for example, is something simple that you realize you need when you don’t have one.” While I never thought about it, living in a car also means you do not have the ability to store food because it attracts rodents, he said. Living in a car is not easy.

Kurt said he’s discovered people who are truly “hurting,” mentally and physically, and in need of more services than him. He told me there are homeless people who live off the system and get too drunk.

But most are just like him, he said. They are not “raggedy panhandlers refusing to work.”

“To me, being homeless is rock bottom,” he said. “It is humbling, it is trying to live your life and trying to have respect for yourself living in a society where it isn’t so much accepted, and trying not to feel bad and be so negative on yourself.”

In that regard, he tries to use as few public resources, like clothing vouchers and free food, as possible “to avoid taking advantage of the system.” He is hopeful that he will be able soon to afford a place to live other than his car.

Kurt had a great job, making $50,000 per year, and he is proud of that. He said he’s a goodhearted person but made very poor choices and did not save enough money for budget cuts and the loss of his job. Once he lost that job, he lost the housing and the good lifestyle. Kurt relates the struggle as a paradox: “Without a shower or a way to try to look presentable, nobody is going to give you a job because you don’t look right, and you don’t smell right because you don’t eat right.”

From Kurt’s perspective, the local shelter is a gift of opportunity to improve his life and become stable.

A cook by trade, Ginger, who is in her 30s with grown children, is a very gentle person who found herself in Aspen through a series of mishaps. For three years she and her boyfriend worked seasonal jobs in Yellowstone National Park that included housing. They would then return home to Virginia, where they rented a home. But when the rent was raised, they gave up the house and headed back to Yellowstone, stopping and camping along the way.

Things did not work out as planned, Ginger said. Car trouble in New Orleans, and then again in Salida, meant they had to stop to work in order to make enough money to repair the vehicle. But then a third, more serious mishap occurred: An accident, caused by a deer jumping in the car’s path, left Ginger with cracked ribs and her partner with a broken arm.

They got a hotel room because “clearly you aren’t camping if you are all banged up,” she said. Expenses mounted more than expected, just as the tourist season was ending in Salida, and they had to move on.

The couple went to Breckenridge, where they had friends. When they saw a cooking job with the Aspen Skiing Co., they applied and got the jobs. Unfortunately, they did not qualify for employee housing because they had a puppy, Ginger said. But with a van that was heated, insulated, comfortable, and safe for sleeping, Ginger and her friend immediately arranged their shifts so that someone could always take care of the puppy.

Grateful for the help she got at the Aspen Homeless Shelter with respect to getting food and showers, she felt that shelter staff were there to help her, not to take care of her. Ginger said she believes that unless someone has a mental or physical disability, it would be “wrong not to work, and people should not be allowed to use the services unless they are actively seeking a job.”

Jordan Curet

An Aspen Homeless Shelter employee on Friday holds a shirt that the organization is selling as a fundraiser. The facility’s day center offers numerous amenities to help the homeless persevere through dire circumstances.

The trouble is, there seem to be more jobs available for men in traditionally male-dominated industries such as physical labor and property maintenance. Philosophical about her predicament, Ginger said that being homeless “forces you to get to know yourself and just what you can get through.”

Ginger knows this is not going to last forever because she will just keep working. She said she’s not scared of running into other homeless people because she has met a lot of them and enjoyed their company. For the most part the homeless are “just normal everyday people” trying to get the most out of life that they can, she said.

Tired from 45 years of working construction, 60-year-old Bill said he is also disillusioned with the government. Homeless for the past four years, he joked that since the 2008 recession, the “American Dream became the American Nightmare.”

Bill said he worries that he will not live long enough to receive Social Security benefits, and he finds irony in the “bailing out of a bunch of crooks that can’t do the math” in a country that has become a “clearinghouse” for foreign-made products. Bill implied that bailing out the homeless would be a better way for America to spend its money.

Bill spoke to me to clear up the misconception that the “homeless are beggars and flimflam artists.” He never thought he would be homeless or that he would barely be scratching out a living. To him, it feels a lot like what happened in the Great Depression, where people turned into “traveling gypsy vagabonds,” a description he much prefers to bum or transient.

Somewhat angry and disappointed that he had been kicked out of his camping spot above Slaughterhouse Bridge, Bill lamented having to live on the street again. He said he feels “messed with and hunted,” and does not really understand why camping in the woods is illegal. A self-described “survivor, not a con man or a beggar,” Bill said he survives by eating beans, hot dogs, ramen noodles and canned vegetables. He said that he does get jobs but the last one was closed down because the contractor or owner did not pull the proper permits.

He shared some of the nitty-gritty details of his life on the street, including using sinks in gas stations, libraries and other public place, changing his socks, and putting on foot powder because, in his words, “the smell of my feet drives me nuts.” At night he sleeps in a park, using his pack for a pillow, wearing two jackets to keep warm.

Using colorful expressions, he told me he feels like a “piece of cardboard that loses its rigidity when it gets wet.” He is, he said, a “broken-down old man pulling out teeth by wiggling them out.” While he admits having had problems with drugs a long time ago, including cocaine, methamphetamine and opiates that led him to this “dead-end street and thoughts of suicide,” Bill does not believe he is a troublemaker. He hates the way people scrutinize him with “eyes [that] are always discriminating.” He is sure no one would rent to him even if he could afford $800 a month.

Before becoming homeless, Bill was sober and drug free for at least seven years but now he drinks to take the edge off while living outside or in a storage space, both of which grow chilly. Every now and then, he saves enough money to rent a motel room in Glenwood, allowing him to sleep in a real bed in a warm room without mice running around like they do in his storage facility.

Appreciative of the beauty of this valley, Bill thinks it is a privilege to live here. He affirms that the Aspen Homeless Shelter does help people with basic needs and assistance in finding work and housing. As for himself, Bill is hopeful he will survive another winter.

Young and athletic, Dylan grew up in a mountain town with a life full of the promise of Olympic skiing. He went to a private school in Utah specifically designed for athletes like himself.

Tragically, there was a gun accident. He said that in “just one series of events, in that one night,” he went from “everything to nothing.” He lost his partner, his job and his house.

He had a truck, luckily, because he was forced to live in it, as well as familiarity with camping and the equipment to do so. Dylan confided that he is inspired by nature, so it “isn’t that rough living that way.” Still, the inconvenience and instability of having to live outside means that “food is inconsistent and pursuing your ambitions is limited.” He does not want to be without housing for too long.

Since Dylan’s skill sets are within the ski industry, he is optimistic that he will be able to find work, at least during the winter season. The other seasons are harder. Dylan’s friends hate that he does not have a place to live and are always inviting him over to watch football and stay the night. But he said he is not one for “couch surfing” and camps in his truck instead.

Dylan has no children, lives alone, and looks for a job in the newspaper as soon as he gets up in the morning. He grabs some food, talks to friends, and goes on a hike for exercise and to clear his head. Mostly, though, he said he researches how to find an affordable place to live and a job. Dylan described the paradox that plagues many of the homeless, in that to “get a job you need housing and to get housing you have to have a job.”

While Dylan had a positive attitude, he said the legal system treated him unfairly after his partner’s death. He is grateful that law enforcement and the courts realized he did not commit a crime, but unfortunately by that point it was too late to save his job and housing.
So becoming homeless was the least of his worries because he was dealing with the trauma of having lost his partner.

“Everything can be going just fine, and you can wake up the next morning and everything sucks,” he said.

Such brutal lessons have taught him “not to look a gift horse in the mouth” because having a job and “having somewhere to go and call your own” is not something we should take for granted.

We need to be grateful for what we have.

A student’s journey
Editor’s note: Here are some of the author’s reflections on her interviews and experiences at the Aspen Homeless Shelter.

It is easy to imagine the homeless as just beggars and panhandlers, lost and aimless, too drunk to stand up, lazy as well as angry and aggressive. Sometimes we are compassionate and envision all of the tragedies and despair that have befallen them. Other times, we can plainly see their mental or physical disability and give them a wide berth.

However, the people I interviewed were nothing like that. They were ordinary, hard-working people struggling to save enough money for housing. I did not get to interview the people that more accurately fit the stereotypical homeless person. Maybe they did not want to tell their story, or maybe Savage wanted to protect me from what he calls chronic cases. Such cases can involve serious mental illnesses, including paranoia, schizophrenia, traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder from war or other trauma, severe alcohol addiction, and bipolar conditions.

I discovered that the Aspen Homeless Shelter provides a tremendous service to help people get back on their feet. But I also found that a vital need exists for transitional and low-income housing for workers, as well as assisted care for the mentally and physically ill. Savage’s records show that, as of August, 127 individuals had used the Aspen Homeless Shelter in 2015.

Their backpacks, bicycles or cars filled to the brim, the homeless search for a warm and safe place to spend the night. Savage told me that some people ride the bus all day, some going to Glenwood on the last bus and hanging out there until the first bus back in the morning. Sleeping during the day on the bus or in the library, for example, allows them to walk all night to keep warm.

I learned from Pitkin County Jail Administrator Don Bird that sometimes people get arrested deliberately so they can spend the night behind bars, out of the cold. Aspen Valley Hospital likewise spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on crisis treatment for the homeless who are chronically sick and/or intoxicated, according to patient liaison specialist Joe High.

Savage and shelter workers feel terrible, especially in bad weather, closing their doors and sending people out into the darkness at closing time. And those leaving the shelter feel like criminals leading secret lives because it is illegal to sleep in parks, on private property, or in cars. The notion that subsidizing transitional and low-income housing is too expensive ignores the reality that the savings in hospital, law enforcement, and jail expenses would help to pay for it.

Low-income housing would additionally provide better opportunities for stability and job success. I hope Aspen and Pitkin County find a way, with their immense wealth, generosity, and compassion, to improve the plight of the valley’s residents who go without homes.