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No easy answers on homelessness in Pitkin County, but study could bring solutions

The Pitkin County administration building on Main Street serves as the main hub for county business. Human Services also operates a facility near Aspen Valley Hospital that provides services to unhoused people.
Kelsey Brunner
Aspen Public Radio
The Pitkin County administration building on Main Street serves as the main hub for county business. Human Services also operates a facility near Aspen Valley Hospital that provides services to unhoused people.

Pueden encontrar la versión en español aquí.

Editor's note: This story has been updated for clarification.

Pitkin County Human Services estimates that there are between 50 and 70 people who are homeless in the county each year, and that number is growing.

It was the subject of the April 23 Board of County Commissioners’ work session. Human Services director Lindsay Maisch said the county wants to do more, but they don’t know where to focus efforts.

“We need permanent supportive housing, and we need transitional housing, but we don’t have a really good grasp locally of what that actually looks like,” she said. “Like how many units do we need? And what are the programs and services that would be needed to help support that?”

That’s why Human Services is asking the BOCC to commit funds to hiring an outside consultant to assist on an in-depth study on homelessness in the county.

The study would include analyzing existing data about unhoused people in the county and doing further research to get an accurate snapshot of the unhoused population, including the root causes of local homelessness.

It would also identify gaps in the county’s current services, as well as which services are most in-demand. For example, do people need more services oriented around mental health, disability, and accessing benefits? Or is the county expecting more new immigrants that may need help with residency and work permits?

Using that information, the county and consultant could work together to develop projects, programs, and a budget that better fit the needs of the area.

The county still intends to participate in and support the Valley Alliance to End Homelessness, but officials say they want to make sure they’re meeting the needs of their constituents, as well.

Pitkin County Resiliency Director Ashley Perl said they already know there’s a need in the region for both transitional housing and permanent supportive housing, but creating that infrastructure is a big lift, and they’d need outside help on that as well.

“When we’re talking about ‘permanent,’ this is a building that we have to find and build out and figure out not just how to have the programs and services available, but the actual infrastructure needs,” she said.

Transitional housing is temporary housing with supportive services for unhoused people, to provide stability while they find permanent housing. Permanent supportive housing typically refers to housing for people experiencing chronic homelessness, usually due to a disability, mental health, or substance use disorder.

County officials are estimating that the study would cost between $150,000 and $200,000.

Commissioners said they’d be open to funding the study, and also laid out some specific questions they’d like answered, in addition to the proposed scope of work.

For example, Greg Poschman said he’d like to understand better the criticism that by developing better services, and building transitional and permanent supportive housing, the county is attracting more unhoused people to the area.

“It’s probably a myth,” he said. “I think that people who are homeless, you know, don't go looking for the best destination. But I don't know.”

There was also discussion during the meeting about the commissioners’ frustration with the City of Aspen.

Poschman, Kelly McNicholas Kury, and Francie Jacober said they’d like to reach out to Aspen once the consultant had been hired and the study was underway to see if they’d like to partner on any future programs.

County Manager John Peacock told them that earlier this year, the county had drafted an intergovernmental agreement, or IGA, with the city to partner on services for unhoused people. He said that there were other issues with the council that prevented it from ever coming to fruition.

At a joint meeting between Aspen City Council and the BOCC on Feb. 12, county commissioners found out that the money that had been originally proposed for the IGA was being spent on other things.

During the meeting, Aspen City Manager Sara Ott said they were less concerned about shelter or long-term systemic solutions, and more about what she called “unwelcome community behaviors” by unhoused people in the city’s public spaces.

“Those folks are impacting quality of life issues,” she said. "So the direction given to me, by City Council, is to work on those immediate tactical needs while these other thought partners…works (sic) on the structural solution,” she said.

She went on to describe some of the priorities she'd been directed to pursue.

“We are absolutely, at (Council’s) direction, evaluating strategy, which includes environmental changes to some of our public spaces so they are less attractive as long term hangouts,” she said.

This caused some frustration for county officials, who understood Ott's comments as describing hostile architecture, or anti-homeless architecture.

Peacock acknowledged that frustration during Tuesday's meeting.

“That was part of the conversation I think was difficult for some of you,” he said. “The money that had originally been committed to partner on these homeless services had been directed to be repurposed to the hostile architecture and efforts to move (the) homeless population out of Aspen.”

He said county staff hadn’t brought forward the idea of a partnership with the city, because they didn’t see a lot of common ground between what the county and city were pursuing.

“But they might be interested in a study to find out what their choices are rather than just resorting to hostile architecture,” Jacober said.

“We can certainly make that ask,” Peacock replied.

Caroline Llanes is a general assignment reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering everything from local governments to public lands. Her work has been featured on NPR. Previously, she was an associate producer for WBUR’s Morning Edition in Boston.
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