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Housing options limited for 80 South American migrants seeking winter shelter

Representatives from Voces Unidas met with government officials on Wednesday to discuss housing solutions for a group of roughly 80 migrants who arrived in Carbondale from Venezuela and Colombia.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Representatives from Voces Unidas met with government officials on Wednesday to discuss housing solutions for a group of roughly 80 migrants who arrived in Carbondale from Venezuela and Colombia.

Carbondale town officials met with leaders from the nonprofit Voces Unidas and Colorado Representative Elizabeth Velasco on Wednesday to develop housing solutions for roughly 80 migrants who’ve recently arrived from Venezuela and Colombia.

Four of the new arrivals were also present at the meeting as part of a committee to speak on behalf of their peers, and finding stable shelter was one of their most pressing needs.

While a few have been staying in hotels, almost all of the migrants are unhoused; some have been living in cars while others have been in tents or on the street, according to a survey conducted by Voces Unidas staff.

This week, the group of migrants were offered a temporary overnight shelter at the Third Street Center, but that space was only confirmed to be available until Saturday, and Carbondale town officials haven’t been able to identify a location for the group to sleep after that.

Voces Unidas President and CEO Alex Sanchez said at the meeting that finding a more stable shelter will be life-saving, since most of the group has been sleeping at the boat ramp near the entrance to Carbondale.

“That's not going to be a viable shelter,” Sanchez said. “It is winter. It is Colorado. People will die.”

Carbondale Town Manager Lauren Gister said the town does not own any large buildings suitable for the group, but town staff are going to discuss the housing concerns with other local governments to try to find a solution.

Carbondale’s Chief of Police, Kirk Wilson, said the town will not enforce camping restrictions on town land at this time. However, he was unsure if state agencies with overlapping jurisdictions, such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife, would agree to pause enforcement.

He said squad cars will patrol the areas, especially if the town cannot find temporary housing after Saturday.

“Our guys will be coming through those areas routinely just to check on them … If they're pulling through the parking lot and you have life safety concerns, share it with them,” Wilson said at the meeting. “We'll figure something out right then, right there.”

Sanchez asked whether it would be feasible to use public facilities like school buildings or the town recreation center to shelter the group of 80.

But Gister said schools cannot be used as shelters while classes are in session, and the Carbondale Recreation and Community Center isn’t big enough to serve as a shelter and remain open to members. The facility only has two showers, so at most, the recreation center could issue five to seven shower passes to the migrants each day.

Alex Sanchez, the President and CEO of Voces Unidas, mentioned that the Office of New Americans, an agency within the Department of Labor and Employment, has set aside $1 million for municipalities to support new arrivals.

He recommends the town apply for that funding in case they need to rent a private facility or pay for hotel rooms on a temporary basis.

He urged them to do so, since some of the migrants are already dealing with injuries caused by exposure to the elements.

“While there are not any emergencies right now, we have documented potentially some diseases that you typically see when you're exposed to the elements and when you’re outside, like acute respiratory infections,” Sanchez said. “And, you know, other folks are coming in with some chronic illnesses that obviously should get some medical attention.”

They also discussed whether or not the former City Market location on Highway 133 would be a suitable location, but Gister said they’d have to come to an agreement with the current owner, and other town officials questioned whether the facility could provide sufficient shower or kitchen space, if any.

Short- and long-term Needs

Sanchez and other Voces Unidas staff conducted a needs assessment earlier this week with 54 of the roughly 80 unhoused migrants, and some of the migrants helped the nonprofit identify other immediate and long-term needs, in addition to housing.

Of the people surveyed, 92% reported that they don’t have stable work.

Many of the migrants are eligible for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), according to the Department of Homeland Security. Anyone from Venezuela living in the U.S. prior to July 31, 2023 are eligible for TPS, which allows individuals to apply for employment authorization. And they can’t be removed from the U.S. or detained on the basis of their immigration status.

Survey results showed 72% of the group arrived in Colorado before the July 31 deadline. Most of them need legal support to obtain TPS status.

Carlos Gonzalez says many of his peers are highly skilled in fields like engineering and construction, and they’re all eager to find jobs.

Gonzalez spoke to Carbondale officials using an English interpreter, Sophia Diamond Clark.

“We also want to be able to contact people with businesses and to see who can get us to work as quickly as possible, because that's the only way we're going to be able to rent [housing] ourselves,” Gonzalez said.

The migrants also said they also need food and warm clothes.

Libia Guzmán says she does not have more clothes than what she’s wearing.

At a meeting with nonprofits on Tuesday, she spoke with the help of Clark.

“When you arrive in this country, you come here with nothing,” Guzmán said. “So if you were to help us, we need clothing and anything for the cold.”

About two dozen social service groups including Recovery Resources, Salvation Army, Food Bank of the Rockies, Lift Up, and the West Mountain Regional Health Alliance have expressed a willingness to help, and many of which have already supplied food and supplies to the Third Street Center.

Halle Zander is a broadcast journalist and the afternoon anchor on Aspen Public Radio during "All Things Considered." Her work has been recognized by the Public Media Journalists Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists.