José Saéz didn’t hesitate when a friend called to offer him a job at an air conditioning company in Glenwood Springs, Colo. He was used to moving. His father was in the military and growing up, Saéz had lived all over—Germany, New York, Delaware, Texas. He was in western Massachusetts then and disliked it. In the West, with its mountains and wide-open spaces, he saw a fresh start.
“Sure,” he told his friend. “I’m on my way.”
Seven years ago, Saéz, who’s now 53, arrived in Glenwood Springs, a town of 10,000 at the confluence of two rivers in a narrow mountain valley. He liked how laid-back the people were—not like in the East. It reminded him of Puerto Rico, where he was born, but with snow.
Still, the addiction issues that had dogged Saéz his entire adult life were still with him, and after a while, he felt his life spiral out of control. The business partnership crumbled and the friends he’d been living with left, leaving him without a place to rent. Alone, he bought an old Honda Accord for $300—the last of his cash—to live in.
At night, Saéz would park it in a canyon on the outskirts of town, where the cold crept in through the smashed-out window, preventing him from sleeping. He was drinking and using methamphetamine, trying to dull the isolation and pain he felt. One night in 2017, Saéz was parked at a rest stop and watched a woman throw out a bag of uneaten McDonald’s food. He’d had nothing to eat all day and as soon as she drove away, he fished the leftovers out of the garbage.
That night, Saéz planned to kill himself. He had been homeless for a year and a half.
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From afar, Glenwood Springs and the other towns in the Roaring Fork Valley look like paradise. But there’s a dissonance at the heart of Colorado’s idealized mountain communities—one that Saéz knows well: the higher you get, the farther you have to fall.
It starts with housing—or rather, the lack of it, a crisis that trickles into nearly every facet of life in these mountains. The housing crunch began long before the pandemic, when rent and real estate prices began rising much faster than local wages. Airbnbs and VRBOs arrived, allowing second-home owners to earn a lot more money renting to tourists than to the people who lived and worked locally. It became harder and harder for the average worker to find an affordable place to rent or buy.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. City workers freed from their offices moved into Colorado’s mountain towns, exacerbating an already strained housing market. From 2019 to 2020, the median price for single-family homes skyrocketed in the Roaring Fork Valley, which includes several communities in the 40 miles from Aspen to Glenwood Springs. In Aspen, it was a 53% increase (from already astonishingly high prices), while down valley, it was 28% in Carbondale. Rents rose, too—20% to 40% in Colorado ski towns, according to a June 2021 regional government report. Both for-sale and rental inventory plummeted.
Respondents in a 2021 community mental health survey in Pitkin County—which, along with Eagle and Garfield, is one of the three counties encompassing the Roaring Fork Valley—reported housing insecurity as the top stressor, compounding other mental health challenges like depression and substance abuse.
That effect has led to a phenomenon, sometimes referred to as the “paradise paradox,” in the Roaring Fork Valley and other Colorado resort regions and towns like Telluride—part of a constellation of places (mostly in the intermountain West) that routinely appear on “best places to live” lists, while having among the highest suicide rates in the country.
The region’s housing crisis, along with its prevalent mental health issues, has led to growing homelessness in many of Colorado’s most scenic and wealthy communities. According to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless’s annual point-in-time count for 2021, there were 60 people experiencing homelessness in Pitkin County—which includes the resort town of Aspen, with a population of 7,000—more than double the number (27) in 2017. The report, however, warns that because the count occurred during the pandemic, the numbers “should be considered an underrepresentation of homelessness.”
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Until recently, local faith organizations with low budgets were often the sole service providers for unhoused people in rural communities, offering free meals and sometimes temporary shelter during the winter months, but little more. In 2019, as the housing market tightened and homelessness grew, officials in the Roaring Fork Valley began wondering how to address the problem more seriously.
At the same time, Built for Zero, a national initiative working to end homelessness, launched a partnership with Colorado’s Division of Housing (within the Department of Local Affairs) and several rural counties, including Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin. With $500,000 in funding from Kaiser Permanente, the state’s largest nonprofit health plan, Built for Zero’s goal was to help local communities develop tailored plans that address homelessness in their part of the state.
Built for Zero makes bold claims—chiefly, that homelessness is solvable. Its claims are largely backed by success stories. Nationwide, 14 communities in which Built for Zero works, including one in Colorado, have reached “functional zero” homelessness for a specific population. A year ago, Fremont County in south central Colorado became the first community in the state to reach functional zero homelessness for its veteran population.
But in Colorado’s pricey Roaring Fork Valley towns, where affordable housing—and really, any housing at all—is increasingly scarce, can Built for Zero’s model possibly work?
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Saéz remembers the day five years ago when his life changed.
The night after the rest stop, he went to a church where he’d heard they serve meals to people experiencing homelessness. But instead of ending his life, Saéz felt overwhelmed by the kindness he found there. Inspired by his new faith in God, he got sober and started working at a detox facility in Aspen. After a while, he grew close with some law enforcement officers, and one of them told him about a job working in Pitkin County for a nonprofit that provides mental health treatment in the Roaring Fork Valley. Six months ago, he took a position in Glenwood Springs as a street outreach worker.
Though Saéz was sober and employed, he still struggled. Housing prices were so high, he could barely afford to live on his own, and like many lower-income people in the Roaring Fork Valley, he was pushed farther west out of the valley where housing is cheaper. Saéz landed in Silt, 60 miles from Aspen, but his rent kept going up. Eventually, he was able to rent from a friend in New Castle, 15 miles from Glenwood Springs; without that friend, he isn’t sure he’d have made it.
Saéz believes that the Roaring Fork Valley’s lack of affordable housing is the biggest barrier to helping others get off the street. The morning we met, he had received a call about a local family with two kids who were unhoused and sleeping in their car. There were resources that could help find them find temporary shelter and food, but Saéz worried about their long-term prospects, when the average two-bedroom apartment rent now costs $1,828 in Glenwood Springs and $2,127 in Carbondale.
“You add the cost of housing to the lack of housing… it’s a disaster,” Saéz told me.
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In the fall of 2018, Debbie Wilde was working as the interim director of LIFT-UP, a food bank serving the Roaring Fork Valley and other nearby communities. In a meeting to discuss funding services for people experiencing homelessness, she listened to some Garfield County officials express their opposition to the initiative, believing it would attract more unhoused people.
“It was like, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Wilde recalled, attributing their attitude to rural communities’ “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mindset.
But as the Roaring Fork Valley’s housing crisis worsened, the county officials’ opposition changed to support, Wilde said. In 2019, Glenwood Springs hired Wilde to help them better understand homelessness in the valley and what the city could do about it.
When Built for Zero showed up a few months later, it began implementing its framework to reduce, and ultimately solve, homelessness. The framework centers around two core pillars: coordination among local service providers and agencies, and collecting reliable real-time data. Working through West Mountain Regional Health Alliance, a regional health care nonprofit, Built for Zero began gathering better local data through outreach workers like Saéz.
Most agencies and organizations use an annual point-in-time count to assess the scope of homelessness in a particular community. But that number isn’t very reliable or useful because it misses so many people, said Melanie Dickerson, Built for Zero’s portfolio lead for large-scale change. Instead, Built for Zero helps communities build what’s called a “by-name list,” which includes every person in a community experiencing homelessness along with the factors contributing to their situation—for instance, substance abuse, not having government-issued identification (a common issue) or having a history of justice system involvement. Using information collected and shared with their consent, each person on the list has a file that includes their name, homelessness history, health and housing needs.
“The more data you have on someone, the more you can match them to appropriate services, whether that’s helping them navigate housing applications [or] accessing an emergency shelter,” said Michelle Skagen, Built for Zero’s coordinator in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Garfield County began employing outreach workers in the fall of 2021. This past February, it added 50 people alone to the by-name list of individuals actively experiencing homelessness in the county, bringing the valley count to 214; including families, the number is 250. (These figures are far greater than the 70 unhoused people identified in Pitkin and Garfield counties as part of the 2021 point-in-time count.) Those numbers will likely grow in the coming months as outreach workers identify more people. Among the major issues people reported as contributing to their homelessness were physical and mental disabilities and chronic health conditions.
Currently, the Roaring Fork Valley has no permanent supportive housing, which combines affordable housing with support services to address the needs of chronically homeless people (those who have experienced homelessness for at least a year, or repeatedly, while struggling with a disabling condition such as mental illness or addiction issues). The services are designed to build independent living skills and connect people with local health care, treatment and employment resources.
In recent years, local leaders have discussed the importance of building a supportive housing facility, Skagen noted—but finding an appropriate location at an appropriate price has been challenging.
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When 36-year-old Leslie Venegas, a peer specialist working at the same outreach program as Saéz, moved to the Roaring Fork Valley seven years ago, you could find a two-bedroom apartment down valley for $1,100. Now, it’s a struggle to rent a room in a house for under $800, she said—and the prices keep going up. Since starting her outreach work seven months ago, Venegas now believes the valley’s unhoused population is larger than anyone expected.
“It’s not just the people who live in the streets—it’s a lot more than what’s visible,” she said. It’s all the people living in their vehicles or RVs without running water or heat; the people couch-surfing with friends or strangers.
For Venegas, the Roaring Fork Valley’s rural location, on top of its expensive and low-availability housing market, makes homelessness harder to address than in a city. She was homeless for a time in Albuquerque, N.M., but unlike the valley, there were far more resources like permanent shelters and more subsidized housing.
Venegas has helped clients get housing subsidies only to have them unable to find an apartment because there’s simply nothing available. “It’s so frustrating,” she told me. “A lot of us are trying to help the situation, but it’s really hard to in this market.” Still, Venegas agrees with Built for Zero’s premise: “If you want a solution, there is a solution.”
For Saéz, much of the progress thus far has been limited to short-term solutions. “I believe what we’re doing is great—we’re getting people off the street and using a lot of dollars to keep people housed in inclement weather,” he said. “But three, four, six months down the road, are we back to square one for those individuals because we’ve run out of housing?”
In the long term, Wilde, who now works as a special project facilitator for the city of Glenwood Springs, believes rural, high-cost communities and regions like the Roaring Fork Valley will have to get more creative to solve their housing woes. For instance, changing zoning laws or considering more tiny home developments—and, crucially, not always relying on the market to dictate housing prices.
“Most people are trying to pay for housing—will pay for housing—but it’s just so out of reach,” she said.
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A little while ago, Saéz worked with a man in his twenties who had come to the Roaring Fork Valley to work at the ski resort in Aspen. When the resort closed in April, the man’s job ended and so did employee housing, so he started living in his van.
Two days later, his van broke down and was towed. Without the money to pay for repairs or a new vehicle, the man was now not just homeless, but without transportation.
Saéz encounters that type of story a lot. “It’s that mentality of, ‘It’s okay for you to come here and bust your ass, but it’s not okay for you to live in my community,’” he said.
For Saéz, solving homelessness means building a more inclusive community—not the idealized mountain town depicted in a glossy magazine spread. At church, he found people who helped him feel like he belonged. “It’s what a lot of homeless need,” he said. “To feel like you’re an individual, a human.”
In the end, Saéz believes it was community that saved him—feeling support when he was struggling; that he was wanted and needed. It was feeling like he belonged.