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Community members rally to help newly-arrived migrants in Carbondale

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Several new arrivals staying at a temporary migrant shelter in Carbondale attend a buffet dinner prepared by Pitkin County Commissioner Francie Jacober and her family on Saturday, Nov. 18. Many of the migrants at the shelter are from Venezuela and came to the Roaring Fork Valley looking for work.

Community members in Carbondale and the Roaring Fork Valley have been rallying around a group of migrants who arrived in recent weeks.

The initial group of about 80 migrants has now grown to about 100 people, most of whom are from Venezuela.

Maeve Conran spoke with Aspen Public Radio's Halle Zander and Eleanor Bennett about how the community has mobilized to support the group and the challenges that still lie ahead.

Maeve Conran: Well, Halle, let's begin. I'd like to ask when the group showed up and also where have they come from?

Halle Zander: Well, not everyone showed up at the exact same time. A number of the people we've talked to arrived in Denver from other cities, like El Paso, or New York, or Chicago, over the last few weeks and months.

And they arrived here mostly as individuals and discovered that there were people in similar situations in Carbondale and were able to kind of find some strength in numbers at first.

In August and September when people were arriving, most people were sleeping in cars or on the street near the entrance to Carbondale, but since then, over the past few weeks, they have found some temporary shelter at the town's community center, although at this point it's an imperfect type of shelter, there's not access to a kitchen or showers, so the town and a number of other community organizations are trying to find better housing solutions.

Maeve Conran: Well, Eleanor, I know yourself and Halle have been talking to some of these folks. Can you share any of their stories as to why they're here?

Eleanor Bennett: So there's a group of four committee members who are representing the interests of their peers. And we spoke with a few of them on Sunday.

So far, everyone we've talked to has told us they came here to find work and send money home to support their families.

One man we spoke with, his name is Asdrubal Alvarado, he's sending money home to support his wife and kids and his parents and the rest of his family. He also said he was impacted by political corruption and threats of violence. Specifically, he worked in the military, and he says he started getting death threats from his higher ups there.

We're also hoping to talk next week with a mother who's staying in temporary housing in Aspen, she's there with her partner and kids.

The Sopris Sun, a local newspaper in our valley, reported last week that she identifies with the LGBTQ community. And she told reporters at the paper that life in Venezuela is especially hard for gay citizens and she's in search for another life.

Halle Zander: Yeah, and on Sunday I spoke with Edwin Jimenez, he has a whole family in Venezuela that he used to live with, and they're suffering from a lot of health issues right now, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and he said he couldn't afford their medical care back home, so he decided to make the trek to the United States.

Here's what Edwin told us through an interpreter:

"The truth is we are supporting our families in Venezuela. If we don't make money here, our families aren't going to eat in Venezuela. Two weeks of work here and we're feeding our families and sending people to get medical attention back at home."

Halle Zander: And Edwin said he made about $100 a month in Venezuela, which just wasn't enough to cover all of the medical expenses he had, and he feels really personally responsible for caring for all of his family members.

And when he's able to find work here in the Roaring Fork Valley, he's making about $100 a day, and he's sending about 40 to 50% of all the money he makes here back home.

So it's being here and being able to work here has really been a service to his family.

But I think the main thing about almost everyone that we spoke to is that they want to work, they want steady, reliable jobs.

They told us that they're thankful that while they're applying for work permits and temporary protected status, they have hot food and some shelter. But they really want to be able to pay their own way and not rely so much on this community support.

Maeve Conran: You mentioned this nonprofit that's been helping this group out, but overall though, what has been the local impact on, say, social services and other local groups trying to help this group of migrants?

Eleanor Bennett: Yeah, absolutely. In terms of things like shelter and food, there's been an immediate response from a lot of individual organizations and government leaders here in our valley.

Earlier this month, our state representative, Elizabeth Velasco, and the advocacy group, Voces Unidas, they were the first to convene nonprofits in the town of Carbondale to meet with the new arrivals, who were at the time sleeping outside or in their cars under the bridge like Halle mentioned earlier.

The advocacy group also hired a new emergency response person to coordinate hot meals. A local food pantry has also been dropping off sort of non-perishable food, and a nonprofit center in Carbondale opened its doors as an emergency shelter, but the shelter only holds about 60 people and is now at capacity, they've been turning away since Wednesday last week, about five people each night, and so far, no one has offered another alternative.

A regional coalition that helps find shelter for people experiencing homelessness in our area is planning this week to get folks on a wait list for housing, but that list already has about 200 people on it, those are folks that were already experiencing homelessness in our three-county area.

The nonprofit center that's offering emergency shelter and the advocacy group say they're doing what they can to help facilitate a lot of these efforts, but neither of them get funding to provide direct services like food and shelter.

Here's Voces Unidas executive director Alex Sanchez:

"This is not going to work and people will die at the end of the day if we continue to see this lack of structure and coordination."

Eleanor Bennett: And so Sanchez and others have been calling on regional governments and social service groups in our area to come together to coordinate a more cohesive emergency response.

A group of migrants mostly from Venezuela have been staying at an emergency shelter in Carbondale for nearly two weeks. Latino-led advocacy group Voces Unidas estimates about 100 newcomers have now arrived in the Roaring Fork Valley, but the shelter can only host about 60 people.
Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
A group of migrants mostly from Venezuela have been staying at an emergency shelter in Carbondale for nearly two weeks. Latino-led advocacy group Voces Unidas estimates about 100 newcomers have now arrived in the Roaring Fork Valley, but the shelter can only host about 60 people.

Maeve Conran: Well, Halle, I know there are families with children amongst this, and so what has been the impact on local schools?

Halle Zander: Right, well, schools are starting to show up to enroll the kids who are a part of the group into school. It is their constitutional duty to enroll kids in classes immediately when their families are experiencing homelessness, regardless of their immigration status and regardless of whether or not they have documentation that would normally be required to enroll students in school.

But they're also trying to connect families with a number of social services that are better equipped to provide food and shelter.

Here's Kelly Medina, the director of the Roaring Fork School District's Family Resource Center:

"This isn't a new issue. It's just, it's getting harder and harder to find housing. It's an issue that's bigger than the school district, right, and it's going to take the whole community to be able to figure out housing solutions that support all of our families here."

Halle Zander: And the Roaring Fork School District says these new arrivals enrolling in school are joining the 105 unhoused students already taking classes in the district. And the Re-2 School District, which is a little farther down valley, didn't have numbers on that, but said there has been an influx of new students arriving from different countries.

Maeve Conran: Well, aside from these local nonprofits and local official agencies, what has been the local reaction to all of this?

Halle Zander: Yeah, so far, it seems a lot of people are interested in showing up to support the group. There was a clothing drive on Saturday, and there were tables filled with winter clothes, including jackets, boots, hats, and scarves, and a number of individuals and other groups have cooked or brought hot meals almost every night.

But like Eleanor said, there's not a whole lot of coordination happening for all the folks who want to help, and some of the volunteers on Saturday during the clothing drive said that they were missing some key items, like long underwear and base layers that can help get a lot of these new arrivals through the winter.

Eleanor Bennett: And we've also heard from a few local government leaders that they've gotten some community concerns about people arriving, especially once they hear that there's shelter and support here, there's a serious housing shortage, as we mentioned earlier, here in our valley already.

And one county commissioner told us they weren't able to share possible emergency shelter locations they've identified for fear of backlash from neighbors living in those areas.

But like Halle says, it seems like those are the outliers and most folks want to support and welcome the newcomers, at least until they get their feet on the ground.

And some local leaders have told us that developing the current emergency response could actually help our community create a better strategy to serve the current homeless population and people experiencing things like food insecurity and other inequities.

Halle Zander: It seems like from the few nonprofits that I've called or talked to since this crisis emerged in our community, that a lot of nonprofits seem pretty limited in their scope or capacity to handle a lot, like a hundred new people all at once.

I think that's partially why we're struggling to see anyone come out as a leader to take control and to support this group.

But also, you know, local government leaders have told us that this issue, helping settle new migrants into the United States, is not a local Carbondale issue, it's not something that we're struggling to organize, it's something that the state is struggling to organize, it's something that the federal government is struggling to organize.

So while we can place blame or point fingers like there isn't really a model to go after at this point, it seems.

Maybe there is. Maybe there are people out there doing it the right way, and we'd love to see that. But there is a lot of bureaucracy that's making it hard to organize everybody appropriately.

Maeve Conran: Well, Halle Zander and Eleanor Bennett with Aspen Public Radio, their reporting on this issue is available at aspenpublicradio.org.

Eleanor and Halle, thank you both so much for taking time to talk to us.

Halle Zander: Thanks Maeve.

Eleanor Bennett: Thanks for having us on.

Maeve Conran has been working in public and community radio in Colorado for more than 15 years. She served as the news director at KGNU in Boulder/Denver until 2020 and has since been working as the Program Director at Free Speech TV based in Denver, as well as host/producer of the Radio Bookclub podcast and radio show which is a collaboration with the Boulder Bookstore.