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.”
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.