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As temporary migrant shelter hits capacity in Carbondale, some call for regional emergency response

A young girl from Venezuela enjoys a snack after arriving at an emergency migrant shelter in Carbondale’s Third Street Center on Nov. 19, 2023. The shelter has been at capacity for a week, but advocacy nonprofit Voces Unidas and other community groups have been helping place families with kids in temporary housing throughout the valley.
Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
A young girl from Venezuela enjoys a snack after arriving at an emergency migrant shelter in Carbondale’s Third Street Center on Nov. 19, 2023. The shelter has been at capacity for a week, but advocacy nonprofit Voces Unidas and other community groups have been helping place families with kids in temporary housing throughout the valley.

An emergency shelter for new migrants at the Third Street Center in Carbondale has turned away at least five people every night since Nov. 15 because the facility is already at capacity. As needs continue to arise, advocates are calling on regional governments, emergency teams and social service nonprofits to coordinate a more cohesive response.

The Third Street Center is largely used for nonprofit offices and community gatherings. It doesn’t have showers or a kitchen with refrigeration, but it opened its doors as a temporary shelter about two weeks ago.

The space can hold up to 60 people, but according to the Latino advocacy organization Voces Unidas, there are now over 100 newcomers, mostly from Venezuela, who have arrived in recent weeks and months.

Many are eligible for Temporary Protected Status and came to Carbondale and the valley from crowded shelters in Denver and other cities looking for work and opportunity.

Voces Unidas President and CEO Alex Sánchez said some families with kids have been offered temporary housing throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, while others are still sleeping in their cars as winter arrives.

“If we ignore the problem, we could create permanent homelessness in the Roaring Fork Valley at levels that have never been seen,” Sánchez said. “People will die at the end of the day if we continue to see this lack of structure and coordination.”

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Several migrants staying at the temporary shelter in Carbondale show Pitkin County Commissioner Francie Jacober photos of a savory dish called “Hallaca” that they used to eat at home in Venezuela. Jacober and her family have cooked a number of homemade meals for people staying at the temporary shelter over the last two weeks.

Migrants hope to work and contribute to community

Asdrúbal Alvarado has been staying at the shelter and is one of four committee members representing his peers in meetings with local officials and nonprofits.

Alvarado spoke in Spanish through local interpreter Claudia Pawl.

“They've opened doors for us and we're very grateful to this town,” he said. “We're not here to be a burden. We are not asking for you to give us anything. We're just asking for a job so we can work and be productive to the community.”

Alvarado made the difficult decision earlier this year to leave his home and family in Venezuela and make the long journey to the U.S. due to political violence and economic insecurity.

“They sent us from El Paso, Texas but then they gave us 12 days at the shelter in Denver and kicked us out,” he said. “When we came here we were sleeping in our cars around the bridge, it was not easy — the cold, it was really bad.”

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Over two dozen nonprofit and social service leaders attend an emergency response meeting organized by Colorado state Rep. Elizabeth Velasco and Voces Unidas at the Third Street Center in Carbondale on Nov. 7, 2023. Velasco, Voces Unidas and others are calling on local governments and nonprofits to help coordinate a more cohesive regional effort when it comes to providing services like food and shelter to new arrivals.

Current emergency response not sustainable

About two weeks ago, Colorado state Rep. Elizabeth Velasco and Voces Unidas helped organize meetings between social service nonprofits, the town of Carbondale, and several of the new arrivals.

Since then, individual community members, government leaders, nonprofits, churches, and schools have stepped up to provide shelter, hot meals, warm clothing and medical support and get school-age children enrolled in classes.

“It's been overwhelming the amount of support that we have received from individuals, but my call is for the ecosystem,” Sánchez said. “We have a rich ecosystem of nonprofits from Aspen to Vail and lots of organizations are experts in some of these areas.”

The advocacy group hired a temporary project manager to help with immediate needs such as food and housing. It has also set up an emergency fund to support coordination efforts and provide City Market gift cards.

But without a regional coalition or clear leadership system in place, Sánchez said the current emergency response is not sustainable.

“Who's in charge? It cannot be Voces Unidas or the Third Street Center,” he said. “We need governments to come together to step up and do the coordination. And we need the nonprofits that receive funding for food, for housing, for vouchers, for homelessness to be able to do the direct services.”

LIFT-UP, a nonprofit that provides food insecurity services from Parachute to Aspen, has delivered non-perishable food to the emergency shelter twice a week and plans to provide a Thanksgiving meal for the group, but Executive Director Ivan Jackson said they don’t have capacity to do much more than that.

“We are not just dealing with a hundred refugees — we've served over a 100,000 people this year,” he said.

Jackson is also co-chair of the Mountain Coalition for Food and Nutrition Security (MCFNS), but he said the 13-member group has yet to discuss whether it can play a leadership role in organizing support for the new arrivals.

“MCFNS has not held this conversation,” he said. “The individual organizations are able in various different ways to support them, but with little coordination or communication between the groups.”

The Valley Alliance to End Homelessness, which recently received a $2.7 million grant from the state, has been meeting to talk about how they can help the newcomers.

The alliance is made up of organizations and leaders from Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties, including the Carbondale-based West Mountain Regional Health Alliance (WMRHA), which is the lead organization that received the grant.

As a first step, the alliance collected information from 55 newcomers staying at the emergency shelter in Carbondale on Tuesday in order to include them in the regional homelessness response system, which will help them become eligible for housing resources.

But WMRHA Executive Director Cristina Gair said they’re also working to secure housing for about 200 other people experiencing homelessness in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties.

“We have an affordable housing crisis, and this is part of an ongoing crisis of homelessness in our three county region,” Gair said.

Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Several volunteers, including Pitkin County Commissioner Francie Jacober, serve a buffet-style dinner at the emergency migrant shelter in Carbondale on Nov. 18, 2023. Pitkin County also provided 50 cots for the temporary shelter that it purchased last year in preparation for potential new arrivals.

Regional collaborations needed to address inequities

When it comes to immediate, temporary shelter, Third Street Center Executive Director and Carbondale Town Trustee Colin Laird said regional solutions are needed to identify more creative housing options.

“It's very unlikely that any one place is going to be able to take this many refugees all at once, but if each jurisdiction, each entity could commit to 10 to 15 (people), it would be a lot easier, I think, than any one of us trying to manage this,” Laird said. “That said, we don’t know how many more people might be coming in the future.”

Pitkin County Commissioner Francie Jacober, who lives in Carbondale and has cooked several dinners for people staying at the emergency shelter, said the county bought 50 cots and identified several places for emergency housing after migrants were flown to Martha’s Vineyard last year by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

“There were memes and jokes and actual comments about, ‘If we're sending them to Martha's Vineyard, let's send them to Aspen,’” Jacober said. “Nothing directly from Greg Abbott or Ron DeSantis, but definitely it was out there and so we wanted to be ready.”

The 50 cots are now being used at the Carbondale shelter, but Jacober said the county hasn’t utilized the emergency shelters it identified yet.

“It’s my understanding that we haven't had any official asks from Carbondale,” she said. “We are prepared to do whatever we can, but we don't want to violate jurisdictional integrity.”

Jacober, who declined to share specific locations the county had identified for shelter to avoid alarming neighbors, said she also worries about community backlash.

“You have people who say, ‘How could we not respond and help refugees?’” she said. “But it's countered with, ‘How fortunate we are to live in a place that's not overpopulated, that has a lot of open space.’ So there is a NIMBY (‘not in my backyard’) ethic in the valley, as everywhere.”

Jacober sees this same conversation play out in the housing arena; some locals recognize the urgent need, but don’t want to see more development in their neighborhoods.

“Governor Jared Polis wants us to add more housing, not just affordable housing, but housing in general,” Jacober said. “But how much do we want to alter this beautiful place that we have?”

Despite an existing housing shortage in the valley, Laird from the Carbondale Board of Trustees is hopeful governments and social service groups will come together to better coordinate support for the newcomers.

And in the process, he thinks the community could also develop a better strategy to serve its current homeless population as well as people experiencing food insecurity and other inequities.

“I think we are all realizing that we're not doing enough on the issue of refugees and the homeless and frankly, all the people who currently work in the region right now who are housing-stressed and wondering if they can make things work,” Laird said. “So this is just an ongoing dynamic in our region and the whole state in terms of, ‘Where can people live?’”

While Laird acknowledges the responsibility local governments have to work on housing and immigration solutions, he also recognizes that these challenges are bigger than any one community.

“It's a federal issue, a state issue, and now it's a local issue,” he said. “This really is a failure on all kinds of different levels and I think we have a real opportunity at the local and regional level to do something innovative, but we need to act quickly.”

For his part, Asdrúbal Alvarado said he and his fellow migrants have faith that they’ll be able to find work and move forward with their new lives.

“My biggest hope is that we can find jobs and that we can all just be stable,” he said. “We are not here to hurt anyone.”

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and "Morning Edition" anchor. She has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, creative efforts to solve the valley's affordable housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.
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