Justin Fillmore helps his dog, Parker, stay dry from the snow at EagleVail in 2019. Fillmore came from Washington and said a person’s current situation doesn’t represent who they are.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

Homelessness has long been an under-defined and underserved issue in Eagle County, but that is starting to change.

Until this year, the county’s ability to identify and support the local homeless population was limited to the work of individual nonprofits and the sheriff’s office, but new funding opportunities have enabled development. of the county’s first organized program for homeless services.

The Emergency Solutions Grant, distributed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, expanded funding during the pandemic to meet the nation’s growing needs for housing assistance. Kim Bell Williams, executive director of the Eagle County Housing and Development Authority, found that the eviction moratorium – which prevented people from being evicted from their homes from March 2020 to January 2022 – was expiring and knew its removal would require a greater support for those struggling to keep their homes in the valley.

After applying for an ESG grant last year, Eagle County received $637,650 to launch the Homeless Stability Services program, led by former Aspen Homeless Shelter executive director Monica Brutout. The grant was originally due to expire at the end of this month, but was recently extended for use until August 2023.

Until now, nonprofits in the valley have been tackling different pieces of the puzzle on their own. For example, someone struggling with homelessness due to domestic violence might find resources at the Bright Future Foundation, or someone forced from their home due to flooding, fire, or other emergencies. in the short term could get support from the Salvation Army.

“Everyone was just doing a little bit, where it kind of touched on what they were doing in their nonprofit, but there’s no formal answer to serving those people,” Williams said. “So that’s what Monica and our partners have been working on.”

Since its launch in March, the Homeless Stability Services program has created a centralized system to process cases of homelessness in the county and connect individuals to the right resources.

What is homelessness like in Eagle County?

One of the main goals of the program is to collect better data on what homelessness looks like in Eagle County, the resources it needs, and its prevalence. Williams said it was impossible to get a complete record of the homeless population when the various resource providers didn’t connect and share data, and it was difficult to design a response program. effective without this information.

“The challenge for us has been that we just haven’t collected and formalized the data through the process in place in the rest of the country,” Williams said. “That’s why this ESG grant focused on counties that didn’t have formalized services — understanding that to get those dollars, you need to capture the numbers and report the data.”

So far, the program has helped 32 people, approximately 75% of whom are considered full-time Eagle County residents. These people fall under the program’s working definition of homelessness, defined as: “People who currently live in a place not intended for human habitation or who are at risk of losing their evening residence within 14 days.”

There are itinerant homeless populations who do not seek to settle permanently in the area, and the resources to support these groups involve less comprehensive services – often just registration for immediate needs or a bus pass for the next place.

The Homeless Stability Services program provides these resources but aims to meet the more complex needs of chronically homeless people who call Eagle County home. Brutout said that while working at the Aspen homeless shelter, she met many people who had the option of migrating to warmer climes during the cold months, but chose to stay during the harsh weather. Winter.

“I would say a lot of the population, in a sense, chooses to be homeless in these mountain areas because they identify these areas as their home,” Brutout said. “They’ve been here for 30 or 40 years and they’ve seen the prices in Aspen rise dramatically to the point where they can’t have a roof over their heads. But from their internal emotional perspective, that’s what they call home, and so they’re really unwilling to leave.

Pam Cessna (center) with Eagle Valley Community Foundation staff.
Courtesy picture

The ESG grant enabled the county to fund a full-time street engagement specialist, Pam Cessna, whose job is to be the first point of contact for homeless people seeking resources in the county. ‘Eagle. Cessna, which began the role in May, registers individuals in the Homeless Management Information System, assesses their needs, connects them with local organizations, and then remains in a long-term case management role. term with each individual, supporting them and monitoring their progress. at one year.

She also spends time traveling through Eagle County and checking in with people on the street to see if they want to be connected to available resources.

“In my experience, in Eagle County, it’s a melting pot of people,” Cessna said. “It’s not a group of individuals I’ve met where it’s the same thing at all levels. It could be eviction, addiction, mental illness – it’s usually loved ones who pass away, and now the money is no longer available, so there’s nowhere to go. go. These are people I prioritize based on what’s going on.

Cessna works with the Eagle Valley Community Foundation and the Mobile Intercultural Resource Alliance, or MIRA, to connect with community members and meet them where they are. She currently has a caseload of 12 people and works with them on a weekly basis to help get out of homelessness.

“Most of the people I help need some type of therapy, whether it’s physical or mental, because those people who don’t want to live on the outside have other things to do,” Cessna said. “You have these people who really want to have a life that they want, but they don’t know how to get there because they keep making mistakes, so we start from zero. I start with ‘Have you made your bed this morning ?’ – and it’s in a tent. Because if you can make your bed, you’re good to go.

Challenges of a “housing first” philosophy

The Homeless Stability Services program is designed around a “housing first” philosophy, where placing someone in a stable home creates a foundation for them to progress in other areas of their life and find stability.

“If you get the homeless population into the homes…they will give the county the taxes from their work and become an active member of the community,” Cessna said.

The challenge is that this philosophy requires reliable supportive housing that simply does not exist in the Valley. Supportive housing goes a step above open housing because it ensures those with certain conditions are not turned away and incorporates case management and support programs in addition to living space.

Catholic Charities has been the main provider for homeless populations in the region for more than 20 years, and Regional Director Marian McDonough explained the importance of having housing solutions that meet the needs of the homeless population.

“A lot of times now, with the[housing]vouchers that are out there, a landlord can say, this guy has bad credit – I’ve got 20 people online, why should I accept this person?” McDonough said. “Permanent supportive housing will accept people with the idea that once they are settled they will have the opportunity to move on to a more stable life in other areas.”

There are currently no permanent overnight shelters in Eagle County. Overnight stays typically occur through hotel stays facilitated by non-profit organizations, which are time-limited and tend to be better suited to victims of short-term emergencies rather than to chronic homelessness.

Garfield and Pitkin counties are the two closest to providing permanent supportive housing, but resources are limited. The Eagle County team is exploring creative solutions to address this need, including the potential use of mobile vehicles and partnerships with community members, but no projects have been funded to date.

With this reality in mind, assisted housing is one of the most powerful tools nonprofits and the county can use to prevent homelessness before it starts, and has been a leading strategy at Catholic Charities.

“One of our great constant pressures is not just to house the people who aren’t, but how important it is to dungeon people housed in our area because the housing market is so tight,” McDonough said. “If someone loses their home, the chances of finding something else to get them in are really limited.”

As more data is collected, project ideas and funding opportunities will increase in parallel. A new state grant program approved by the state legislature this spring has released an additional $105 million to support homeless-response programs, which Eagle County is now poised to access. with its own operational program.

“Just capturing the data is a huge win for this year and will bring more opportunities for services in the future,” Williams said. “It will help us in many ways, to get to the next place where we can start to wonder if it’s right to have permanent shelter or not, or if something more like a safe outdoor space is what our county needs.”

The Homeless Stability Services program will continue to identify new ways to address homelessness in the county and provide the long-term support needed to have a lifelong impact.

“It’s complex and it’s fascinating and it’s exciting,” Cessna said. “I have to meditate when I get home, otherwise I will stay here. I just want it to continue because it feels good to do the next good thing.