By David Troxel
Sopris Sun Contributor
On the eve of Thanksgiving of last year, local real estate broker Lynn Kirchner and her husband were wide awake in the middle of the night, with the same thing on their minds. They were thinking about a chance encounter earlier that evening with a homeless woman, and as Kirchner recalls, “I recognized the woman and realized that I knew her. She had been a local landowner and successful part of the community, and here she was at the bus stop dragging around all of her belongings in the middle of a frigid night.”
The Kirchners literally couldn’t sleep, kept awake by the thoughts of that woman, and who knows how many in similar circumstances, wandering the night looking for a warm place to sleep as the temperature dipped below zero. By morning, they had agreed that something needed to be done. Kirchner went to work, reaching out to her network and the community at large to organize a meeting to examine the issue. With the cold snap worsening, the need was becoming more pressing every night.
The result of those first couple of meetings has been the formation of the Carbondale Homeless Assistance (CHA) initiative. With attendance by numerous community members, including representatives of the Carbondale Police Department and municipal government, community activists and many others motivated by raw compassion, the group went to work to address the issue that they saw as, literally, a matter of life and death. As Kirchner recalled, “It wasn’t long ago that a person froze to death on the streets of Carbondale. We couldn’t let that happen again.”
The group brainstormed the problem, and realized that the plight of those living out in the frigid winter elements was too immediate to spend much time on organization. “We needed to pull together the resources to help right now, while the situation was critical,” said Kirchner. By the end of the second meeting, sources of relief were identified, action teams had been formed, and a strategy was put into effect. Team leaders went to work, including Dawn Dexter, a community activist and organizer who suggested and helped develop a “street sheet,” or guide to resources for the homeless and others when the weather is hostile or resources scarce. She had been working with the problems of homelessness and the social systems that create them for a number of years, and had spoken with homeless panhandlers at the intersection of Highways 82/133. Her experiences had produced a perspective that is, to some degree, at odds with many assumptions about homelessness.
“The principal causes underlying homelessness are NOT alcohol and substance abuse, or even mental illness,” Dexter said, although these are often features of a homeless lifestyle. “Homelessness is the result of economic disadvantage, pure and simple. We can’t solve homelessness without looking very hard at economic, wage and opportunity disparity.” She continued: “We’ve talked about the lack of shelter facilities in Carbondale. Aspen and Glenwood both have shelters, but these kinds of facilities often have very strict rules and limitations as to who can stay there. In most shelters, couples and families are often split up, single mothers are not allowed, and so on. So in many cases, the very relationships that people on the street need to ground them in their uncertain lives are denied them if they want to sleep in a bed for the night.
“The CHA is a great response to an emergency need,” Dexter continued, “but we need to go beyond the provision of emergency resources to address the larger issues in community. Economic disparity is one of these, but at a deeper level we need to learn to recognize the basic humanity, the ‘personhood’ of people who are trapped on the street. And while we’re doing that, we need to recognize the diversity of social causes of homelessness and stop scapegoating people who are struggling to live in this community, and work to identify the ‘invisible’ homeless who are sleeping in their cars, bouncing from one friend’s couch to another, or otherwise lacking stable housing. Whatever help we can give to people, the bottom line is that we need to get them into housing.” To that end, Dexter and others have developed another organization (Shining Mountain Homes for All) to address housing availability specifically and raise funds to build “tiny homes” and other affordable alternative housing.
A basic strategy
One of the most basic strategies of the CHA group has been to reach out to the homeless, both to get a clearer idea of how many are homeless in Carbondale and to identify their needs. Jim Coddington, of Offering Hope LLC, is a long-time recovery and substance abuse expert who is leading the outreach team for CHA. In his work, he has spoken with many homeless and at-risk individuals (the “about-to-be-homeless”). He offers a perspective that touches the core of the social issues that CHA seeks to address: “It’s great that we can help people find the resources we’ve been working on, like a place to take a shower or a warm sleeping bag, and the collaboration of the community businesses in helping to provide services has been incredibly important. But it will not be enough to keep people, whatever their circumstances, from freezing on the streets of Carbondale. We need to support and spread the idea that these folks are our neighbors, and bring them into the community. They’re as much Carbondale as we are, and marginalizing them is our mistake and our loss.”
Coddington also agrees with the intentions of Kirchner and Dexter; the end of winter will not signify the end of these efforts. As Kirchner put it, “Groups like this have come together and then come apart over the years, but the problem persists. We intend for this to continue in the summer this year and beyond. We’re in this for the long term.”
Editor’s note: Carbondale Homeless Assistance, and Shining Mountain Homes for All, are accepting donations on Facebook and through crowd funding).
Published in The Sopris Sun on February 18, 2016.