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Newly-arrived immigrants put a sharper focus on Roaring Fork Valley’s housing struggle

From left, Colin Laird, Alan Muñoz Valenciano, Jose Saez, Wendee Schoon Fisher, and Rob Stein participate in a panel discussion in Glenwood Springs about housing recent immigrants from Latin America on Jan. 29, 2024. The panelists and their respective agencies hope to create more permanent infrastructure to provide transitional housing and shelter to everyone.
Caroline Llanes
Aspen Public Radio
From left, Colin Laird, Alan Muñoz Valenciano, Jose Saez, Wendee Schoon Fisher, and Rob Stein participate in a panel discussion in Glenwood Springs about housing recent immigrants from Latin America on Jan. 29, 2024. The panelists and their respective agencies hope to create more permanent infrastructure to provide transitional housing and shelter to everyone.

Pueden encontrar la versión en español aquí.

Over 170 people, many from Venezuela, have arrived in the Roaring Fork Valley over the past three months, but most of them, like so many other people in the community, have not been able to find stable housing.

The Valley Alliance to End Homelessness hosted a panel in Glenwood Springs on Jan. 29 to discuss the challenges local groups face in finding housing for recent immigrants.

Panelists from Voces Unidas, Recovery Resources, the town of Carbondale, and other agencies agreed that local governments and groups were already struggling with capacity to provide services to unhoused people, and that the large group of newcomers only highlighted the issue.

Wendee Schoon Fisher is the Unsheltered Outreach program manager with Recovery Resources.

“That has been our fight for winters,” she said. “We have this population of people that are unhoused. This has highlighted it, the newcomers coming, just because it’s a much bigger number now. But the truth is, every winter it’s a panic finding places for our current homeless population to be warm and safe for the winter. It’s just the nature of the valley.”

Jose Saez is a housing navigator with the West Mountain Regional Health Alliance. He agreed with Schoon Fisher’s assessment.

“This is really, in my opinion, a blessing in disguise, because this opens up a lot of eyes,” he said. “Say, ‘we don't have this’ or ‘we don't have that’ or ‘we don't have the infrastructure.’ Maybe we need to start building some.”

Saez also remarked that it’s a lonely experience coming to a new country where your immigration status isn’t secure, and that there’s a real need for people with bilingual and bicultural knowledge to help.

“They don’t know the language, they don’t have any ID, they don’t have much way of doing anything,” he said. “And how do you navigate that in trying to help them, and not make them feel like they don’t belong?”

Alan Muñoz Valenciano is with the Latino advocacy group Voces Unidas. He said that before the worst of winter set in, local governments and agencies were in crisis mode, and couldn’t really think long-term.

“But now, I think we’re in a place where we need to start creating these collaborative solutions, with Eagle County, Pitkin County, Garfield County, any nonprofit service-based organization, and the community in general,” he said. “Coming up with these solutions, to come up with a sustainable, long-term solution.”

He said a big part of creating more sustainable infrastructure is having people with bilingual and bicultural knowledge in roles where they can help.

“Newcomers, first it’s that they’re unhoused, that’s one barrier that they’re dealing with, and then it’s the immigration piece, right?” he said. “We can tailor it to the needs that they have with being unhoused, but also tailor it to the immigration piece. And that’s where we can differentiate what the needs are, and who can take that role in that capacity of addressing those solutions.”

Colin Laird serves on Carbondale’s town council and runs the nonprofit Third Street Center, which opened its doors to the newcomers while the town worked to get its own shelters up and running.

Laird said he doesn’t want to see people feel like they have to leave the valley, or feel as though they’re being pushed out. He also doesn’t want to stop providing services as a deterrent to keep others away.

“We are trying to do the best we can to house them, keep them safe and buy them time until they can get through the system so they can get their documents,” he said.

Former Roaring Fork Schools superintendent Rob Stein, who’s coordinating the town of Carbondale’s immigrant response, said in a separate interview with Aspen Public Radio, that of the roughly 170 people who have arrived in the valley since November, only about 50 individuals and six to eight families have been able to stay.

During the panel, he said that some Carbondale residents he had spoken to were initially worried about a bunch of new immigrants sheltering in their neighborhood. But he said when he asked them about it later on, their responses changed.

“‘Surprisingly well. Those guys are super nice guys,’” Stein said one resident told him of his new neighbors. “And I think that would be all of our experience… somehow we have to normalize, not just get used to it, but normalize these relationships and put more human faces, you know, more stories.”

Laird also pointed out that many of the new arrivals have a lot of skills that employers in the valley sorely need.

“They want to work really hard, but they can't legally do it,” he said. “But we need some housing. And our whole housing infrastructure, as you guys all know, stinks.”

One family’s struggle to find housing

Libia, who traveled to the U.S. from Venezuela last year, met her partner Ana, who is from Honduras, while staying in an overcrowded migrant shelter in Denver. (Aspen Public Radio is only using their first names to protect their privacy).

Libia, Ana, and Ana’s three kids, first came to the Roaring Fork Valley last fall in search of more opportunity and better living conditions.

Libia became part of a committee, organized by Voces Unidas, of newly-arrived migrants who had been staying under the bridge in Carbondale and helped represent the group in meetings with social service groups and government leaders.

And then the family received money to help pay for five weeks of rent in Aspen from local nonprofit Response, which works with survivors of domestic violence, because Ana suffered abuse in her previous relationship.

Libia and Ana spoke in Spanish through interpreter Claudia Pawl with Convey Language Solutions. Pawl’s translations are shown here in italics.

“Más que todo, Aspen me ha ayudado mucho a olvidar lo que yo he vivido, que es mucho maltrato,” Ana said. “Mi expareja, él tiene un orden de restricción porque él me agredía mucho al frente de mis hijos.”

“There was a lot of mistreatment from my ex … He has an order of restriction, actually a restraining order, because he used to hurt me a lot and he would do it in front of the kids.”

Over the last several months, Libia and Ana were able to find some work cleaning houses and enrolled Ana’s oldest daughter in school in Aspen, but eventually the reality set in that they wouldn’t be able to afford to stay.

“Sí, estamos todavía contentos del tiempo que duramos aquí viviendo en Aspen: Perfecto, chévere,” Libia said. “Lo que pasa es que aquí en Aspen no hay lugar para vivir. O sea, no hay vivienda, no hay un apartamento. Es costoso también. Me entiendes? Estamos triste porque no amo de Aspen.

“Well, right now we are happy. You know, everything that's happened here in Aspen so far has been perfect. It's been wonderful. But there is no place to live. There's no apartments that are attainable or that are accessible with the rent … We’re sad to be leaving Aspen.” 

Response helped the family find housing in Denver and will be paying for another month of rent while they get their feet on the ground, but like many of the nonprofit’s clients, Ana and Libia risk being deported if they work due to their immigration status.

“Este, cuando llegué a Carbondale, me paré en un restaurante, en un restaurante no en frente de la bomba de changas al frente y me llegaron unas personas de esas de té meta nombrando,” Libia recounted. “Me llegaron dos señores y me dijeron que ‘si usted está buscando trabajo, no pueden trabajar.’”

“I was still in Carbondale … and I went to this restaurant that's across the street from the gas station. And in this restaurant I was just kind of hanging out and waiting. And these two guys came and they told me, you know, 'We know that you're here. We want to make sure that you know you cannot work.’”

Because Libia is from Venezuela, she is eligible for Temporary Protected Status, which would grant her a work permit, and Ana may also be eligible for certain visa protections for survivors of domestic violence, but the application process can be complicated and expensive.

Tiffaney Bledsaw, who has been managing Response’s housing program since 2019, said she’s seen many of her clients face similar challenges over the years.

“Response is able to help with immigration attorney fees, like at least a small portion to try to get them in to start helping them with that process,” she said. “But it is a struggle that I've seen since I've started.”

According to Bledsaw, limited funding and expensive rent are two of the biggest barriers the nonprofit faces in helping survivors of domestic violence, including immigrants, in the short and long-term.

“A lot of my clients do have to leave the valley in order to live on their own, you know, there's nowhere for them to go,” she said. “I just wish there was more being done about affordable housing and the lack of housing.”

Response currently houses its clients for up to three months in three apartment units that they own or rent around the valley, and the model hasn’t been able to meet the growing need.

Last year, the nonprofit had to turn away 22 people seeking shelter because they didn’t have the space for them, but Bledsaw is hopeful that the new shelter the organization is building in Basalt will help.

Response broke ground on the shelter in November, and is expecting to open its doors in January 2025.

In the coming weeks, the nonprofit hopes to match Ana and her family with another domestic violence organization in Denver, with the hope that they can continue to get support while they apply for work permits.

While Ana and Libia know that the future is uncertain, especially heading back to a city that has seen over 40,000 new migrants in the last year, they plan to work hard to stay there.

“No quiero irme de Denver tampoco,” Libia said. “Ni me pienso ir de los Estados Unidos, ni quiero regresar a mi país, ni quiero regresar a ningún país del mundo. Me quiero quedar aquí porque este es el país donde, el poco tiempo corto que tengo acá, me he sentido más segura. He visto que las cosas, he visto la vida de otra manera.”

“I don't want to leave Denver either … I never want to leave the United States, I never want to go back to my country, or any other country in the world. I feel safer here. And, as a matter of fact, because I feel safer here, I even see life differently.”

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.
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.