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Irene Wittrock reflects on the enormous, but rewarding task of managing Carbondale’s temporary migrant shelter

Irene Wittrock, a la derecha, ayuda a Crileidi Carreño y a su hijo, Eliab David Carreño, a tomar un autobús desde Roaring Fork Valley hasta Seattle, Washington, el 7 de diciembre de 2023. Carreño y su pareja encontraron alojamiento a través de un amigo en Seattle después de llegar a Colorado desde Venezuela a principios de este año.
Courtesy of Irene Wittrock
Irene Wittrock, right, helps Crileidi Carreño and her son, Eliab David Carreño, catch a bus from the Roaring Fork Valley to Seattle, Washington on Dec. 7, 2023. Carreño and her partner found housing through a friend in Seattle after arriving in Colorado from Venezuela earlier this year.

Pueden encontrar la versión en español aquí.

For the last two months, Rifle resident Irene Wittrock has been at the Third Street Center in Carbondale nearly every day, helping run a temporary shelter for about 60 migrants.

Wittrock works for the local Latino advocacy nonprofit Voces Unidas, which has registered more than 170 newcomers since early November.

The town of Carbondale plans to replace the current shelter with two smaller, overnight-only shelters once it finalizes a management agreement with a regional nonprofit that has experience working with unhoused people. In the coming months, Wittrock and Voces Unidas will continue connecting people with additional support, such as housing for families, school enrollment and immigration paperwork.

Aspen Public Radio spoke with Wittrock earlier this week about her experiences on the ground at the shelter every day.

The conversation below has been edited for clarity and length. 

Eleanor Bennett: You’ve been on the ground here at the shelter almost every day for the last two months. What has it been like?

Irene Wittrock: I started working here part-time at first. We didn't know how this was going to be, and when I started working, it was very difficult because it was nobody else, just me. And I needed to figure out how to get hot meals for them and clothing donations — winter jackets, winter boots, and all that stuff — and they have questions for me. So I really needed to be here every day.

I usually wake up at 6 a.m. and start getting ready to start working and being here until 10 p.m. at night, and then go back home and start working there too — emailing people, calling people and getting all that they need. So, it was very hard, but it was also great, because I felt like I was never tired.

Every day is different. I do remember when they were cooking. I think that was one of my favorite experiences, to be able to try their food because they cook for me, even though they were not allowed to cook. That's why I say they need a place to cook because when they cook, you can see how happy they are. They don't want people to bring food for them to cook for them. They want to be able to cook for themselves and be independent.

Bennett: And can you tell us a little bit about some of the folks that you met here? Do any people stand out to you? Or who were the first people you met?

Wittrock: Yeah, I do remember those first people that were here since the beginning. This family, I met them the first day and she was at the shelter and then we found a hotel room for her, then I gave them a ride to the high school so she can get enrolled. And I took a picture, and that was not my job, but I was very happy to be able to do it for them. And she's very happy at high school. Now, Valley Settlement is helping them to get housing and Voces Unidas paid for the housing. It's around 10 families that we've helped get temporary housing and support from the community in Rifle and New Castle. Even in Aspen, there is a family who has been there for two months, and now they're looking to go back to Denver because it's really expensive to live here.

Bennett: You grew up in Mexico. Do you think that having gone through this broken immigration system that we have here in the U.S., has that impacted you wanting to help folks at all?

Wittrock: Oh yeah, for sure. I came here like them looking for the same dream. And when I got here, I didn't know English, I didn't know anything. I didn't know that there are many resources for people, and we just need somebody to let us know that they can go and get help. When we arrive here, what do we do? Who can help us? At least that made me feel like I want to be here. I want to let them know all that I learned these past years.

Bennett: What do you think about how our community has responded? It sounds like there have been a lot of volunteers coming forward. Voces Unidas and you have obviously stepped up in a big way, the Third Street Center opened its doors, the town of Carbondale is starting to get state emergency funds to try to do their part, but there is a wider valley in a wider region. Do you feel like the whole community is stepping up right now?

Wittrock: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean the community is amazing. They have been reaching out to me, calling me, sending me emails, and I didn't even have the time to respond. All those people that wanted to help, I was like, it was just me I couldn't do everything. But that community response was amazing. They really, really helped me a lot. And they support, they bring breakfast and dinner and stuff for the people. I mean it's amazing what this community can do.

Bennett: And yet you were mostly just one person here every day. Do you think there are ways we could improve as a community?

Wittrock: Yes. I mean, if there are more people here working for them and we can organize all those volunteers (who) want to help, it can be bigger, we can do more.

Bennett: The current shelter here is closing soon, and these two new shelters are opening, but it sounds like they're going to be smaller, have less capacity — about 40 people can stay there. What do you think is going to happen to folks who maybe have a bed now and might not next week?

Wittrock: Well yeah, that is very hard because I started working here for them, hoping that they were going to open bigger shelters and they were going to have a bigger capacity. And now they say only 40 people can go there. And I don't know how the town of Carbondale is going to work on that. I mean, there are people looking for housing. We are going to help them to pay rent, but it's really hard. You know, there is not a place to rent. And those that can find something here, they want to stay here because they like this community, they can find jobs here. They don't want anything free. They want to earn it.

Bennett: And it sounds like now that the town is opening two new shelters and starting to work with a different nonprofit to manage those, you and Voces Unidas are going to help folks with their work permits and with Temporary Protected Status.

Wittrock: Yes, we are going to focus on that now, and I'm going to have the time to meet with one person and follow up with what they need, because they have different needs. Some qualify for TPS, and other ones qualify for asylum, and other ones don't qualify for any of that. And you know, this past legal clinic, we were able to fill up 17 applications that we are going to send. And when we got the first one, we were like, "This is a win."

Bennett: And it sounds like even on Friday this past week, more folks were arriving and not just from Venezuela, is that right?

Wittrock: Yes, that's correct. I think there were like, 30 people in one weekend — that's a lot. And we saw some people from Honduras, from Mexico, from Nicaragua. And they are looking for the same thing that the Venezuelans are looking for: a shelter, looking for help where they can stay, where they can spend the night. And it is hard to say, "Sorry, you cannot stay here because we are at full capacity."

Bennett: And assuming we do continue to see more folks arriving here in the valley, do you think our community can support them?

Wittrock: I think so, because if we were able to host more than a hundred people at the shelter and (with) just me, just one person working at the shelter, I mean, we can do it.

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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