By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
The Carbondale Homeless Assistance coalition (or Carbondale Habitat-Challenged coalition, as some prefer it) has been in business for about a year and a half, and has successfully helped local habitat-challenged individuals with everything from dental surgery to meals to showers at the Carbondale Recreation and Community Center (CRCC).
And along the way, an organizer noted, the coalition’s reputation has gone from being seen as a little on the kooky side to one of acceptance and respect.
“We’ve survived the naysayers, we’ve gotten the town behind us, we’ve gotten the community’s support,” summarized long-time local real estate broker Lynn Kirchner, an early organizer of the coalition.
And on May 13 the coalition will be holding a fundraising event at the Third Street Center, from 6 to 9 p.m. in the Calaway Room, featuring a silent auction and a bake sale to raise money to keep the organization going and growing.
Kirchner, who owns and runs Amoré Realty, said the idea for the coalition came to her and her husband, David, about two years ago, after the pair of them went to a Thanksgiving dinner and encountered a local woman whom they knew had been a member of a local ranching family.
But they learned at the time that the woman and her dog, had recently been evicted from her family ranch in Missouri Heights as a result of what Kirchner termed “bad business decisions” and were living in a camper.
That night, Kirchner recalled, “David and I couldn’t sleep” because of concern for the woman.
“We said, ‘We’ve got to do something to help,” she recalled, so they connected with a few other concerned citizens, including teacher Joe Markham, put out a Facebook alert, and held a meeting at the Third Street Center.
The results, Kirchner said, were startling.
“I got 300 or 400 responses, and about 80 people came to the meeting,” she said, including Vince Savage, director of the Aspen Homeless Shelter, and a coalition was born.
“Many of the people that are helping us today have been out on the streets,” Kirchner said. “At one time in their lives, they’ve had a homeless experience.”
Over the ensuing year and a half, Kirchner said, the coalition has responded to requests for aid from the homeless population, and gathered contributions from area businesses such as Misers Mercantile, a second-hand store on Main Street; Ragged Mountain Sports, a used sporting goods outlet in the Sopris Shopping Center on Highway 133; and the Doctor’s Garden cannabis shop on Main Street, which has conducted coat-collecting campaigns for the homeless.
The group also holds book sales to raise money. Kirchner said one recent two-day book sale generated $1,200 in proceeds for the coalition, and invited local residents to donate books at the Faith Lutheran Church in Carbondale, one of the coalition’s supporting organizations.
The most common request from homeless individuals, Kirchner said, has been for information about resources for those experiencing health problems or other difficulties.
“I need a plain and simple paper,” she said she has heard from many, “that if my dog gets sick … or I need emergency treatment, I know where to go.”
The group put together such a list of resources, which is available on the coalition’s Facebook page (search for Carbondale Homeless Assistance). It displays the phone numbers of crisis hotlines, places where food is available, healthcare options, housing possibilities, pet care facilities and temporary shelter locations, among other information.
Kirchner also shared with The Sopris Sun a list of “what we have accomplished” as an organization, starting with an “open conversation with the habitat challenged in our community” and “awareness of who these people are who are in our community,” two key concepts in the struggle to deal with increasing homelessness.
In addition, the coalition has arranged membership passes at the CRCC (for use of the showers); emergency rooms in local hotels; gift cards for food and personal items; and provision of bi-monthly hot meals for those in need (first and third Saturdays at Faith Lutheran Church, 1340 Highway 133, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.).
The food for those meals, she said, often is donated by LiftUp, a local nonprofit, and Whole Foods, a natural foods store in Willits between Carbondale and Basalt.
Kirchner estimated that the coalition provides direct assistance to around 40 people on a regular basis, including emergency funds for filling up a gas tank.
Even as the interview for this story was underway, she said, one aid recipient — the woman who was evicted from her ranch — was undergoing emergency dental surgery at a local clinic.
Kirchner said the newest crisis concerning homelessness is the appearance of people she called “almost homeless” — people who are working and renting a place to live, but who lack the wherewithal for such critical services as child care while the parent or parents are working, and who are constantly in danger of becoming truly homeless through the loss of a job and the resulting eviction from rental properties.
“That’s the scary one,” she said, describing one case in which a mother fell and broke her leg, which put her out of work and threatened to put her and her children on the street, until the coalition stepped in to negotiate a settlement with the landlord that allowed her to stay put.
One problem facing the coalition, Kirchner said, is the recent rise in Vacation Rentals By Owner, or VRBOs, which she said have driven up area rental prices and added to the threat of homelessness for lack of funds.
For instance, she said, there once were “barely legal” apartments renting for $200-$300 a month, that now are renting for twice that, while accessory dwelling units attached to numerous local single-family homes are going for $1,500 a month for a one-bedroom.
In this rental climate, she said, finding emergency housing for the homeless has been increasingly difficult, though Kirchner felt the surge in VRBOs has leveled off lately.
The coalition’s main goal, she said, is to respond to “urgent care” situations, particularly in the winter months, that will help the homeless make it through the worst times and get them back on their feet.
And while she feels the organization is doing all it can and has made a difference to many people’s lives, she noted, “For each success story, there’s a couple of new ones drifting in.”