vince thomas

Vince Thomas, who has lived unhoused in Aspen for around 15 years, sits on a bench in downtown Aspen. 

Vince Thomas, who is unhoused, says he rarely spends nights at Pitkin County’s homeless shelter because he can’t get enough sleep there. 

Clients at the shelter are required to leave by 7 a.m. while Thomas often starts his day around noon or later. On all but the coldest nights, Thomas prefers to sleep in the woods around Aspen, alone.

Thomas is one of a small group of unhoused individuals in Aspen who have received increased scrutiny and attention from city officials, community members and law enforcement in the last year or so. While more than 260 people sought homelessness services at the Pitkin County Health and Human Services Building in 2023, Aspen police say Thomas’s small group makes up the bulk of repeated interactions with the local unhoused population. 

Police say these individuals often refuse to accept homeless services; Thomas says he and others don’t accept services out of protest against conditions at the shelter. Aspen City Council members have called out the group for exhibiting “unwelcome behaviors,” and city officials have said they are working on a “strategy” to better address their behaviors. 

In connection to this issue, Councilman Bill Guth recently said he will “not allow Aspen to become like San Francisco.” 

Arrest summaries from the Aspen Police Department show that officers made 86 arrests involving 27 unhoused (“transient”) people in 2023. Of these, five people were arrested five or more times. One individual was arrested 15 times, and another 14 (Thomas). 

Unhoused people received 27 trespass charges, 14 charges related to public alcohol consumption, 13 disorderly conduct charges, 11 charges of occupying another person’s property or sleeping in a vehicle on city property (a municipal violation different from state trespass statutes), seven theft charges and five harassment charges. Unhoused individuals also received five charges of assaulting an officer and one third-degree assault charge. 

Officers say they are responding to more complaints about unhoused people in Aspen now than they have in the past, consistently reiterating that these calls have to do with a very small group of repeat offenders. 

SOS camp preferred

Thomas holds that people experiencing homelessness in Aspen have no consistent place to sleep other than the shelter, which he doesn’t find suitable because he can’t sleep there and the facility lacks a kitchen. Nonprofit Recovery Resources, which contracts with the county to operate the shelter, has said it applied for a license to have a kitchen and did not obtain it. 

Thomas said that while searching for places to sleep and survive, unhoused people end up facing undue attention and aggression from police. 

To him, the solution is simple. 

“All we have to do is use city or county buildings (for shelter). They’re heated. They’re well lit. Open one and put a law enforcement officer in there for you know, keeping the peace,” Thomas said, adding that residents could be required to do a chore in the morning to keep the space clean.

For governments, the answer is more complex, including a mix of law enforcement, homeless services and potential changes to certain downtown spaces that could make them less appealing as “long-term hangouts.” 

If not a warm public building, Thomas said local governments should provide another “Safe Outdoor Space” like the one that operated next to the Brush Creek Park and Ride during the COVID-19 pandemic. The space, which was operated by a coalition of local governments and nonprofits, included individual sleeping spaces for cars and tents, portable bathroom and shower facilities and a sheltered common area. 

homeless center

The homeless services center at Pitkin County’s Health and Human Services Building can accommodate around 14 people per night. During the evening, staff and clients move tables and chairs out of the space to make room for sleeping mats. 

Local officials also have discussed bringing back the SOS as a response to currently unhoused people in Aspen. In a February joint meeting of the Aspen City Council and Pitkin County commissioners, Councilman Sam Rose said he supported exploring another space. 

“I feel like it was a better option than what’s happening now,” Rose said. “It was more consolidated and away from downtown, quite frankly.”

Nonprofit homeless service providers in the Roaring Fork Valley also have said that jointly managing the SOS encouraged more centralization and coordination between organizations. 

But Aspen Police Department Human Service Officer Braulio Jerez said in an interview that facilitators at the SOS struggled to enforce rules and safety measures and that the camp saw high turnover among its managers. 

“We had the ambulance there at all times during the night,” Jerez said. “There were fights, there were people being assaulted within their own group. There was that one death, you know, things did happen. And because we lacked certain ability to have control, and rules and regulations didn’t exist.”

Wayne Fairless, a resident of the camp, froze to death in February 2021 on the night of his 54th birthday. A toxicology report showed methamphetamine, amphetamine and THC in his system when he died. 

Despite his support for SOS camp, Thomas said he knew Fairless as a friend and mourned his death. Fairless was one of many unhoused friends Thomas has lost to exposure.

“My last three friends either froze to death or died of hypothermia,” he said.

‘Pretty damn difficult’

Pitkin County Human Services Director Lindsay Maisch indicated in the February meeting that the county was not working to bring back the SOS. 

Instead, Pitkin County and the city of Aspen have taken slightly diverging approaches to the small group of unhoused people who continue having run-ins with local law enforcement. 

Pitkin County operates contracts with Recovery Resources to provide homeless and addiction services at the Schultz Health and Human Services Building in Aspen, near Aspen Valley Hospital. The county is contemplating a study to better understand its unhoused population and has discussed assisting other valley homeless service providers in creating transitional housing or permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness. 

Earlier this year, the county approached the city seeking funding as part of an intergovernmental agreement to support the existing shelter. City staff considered the offer but did not bring it before council, according to City Manager Sara Ott. 

Ott said during the February meeting with commissioners that the city “had operational and data questions that were unresolved” and would not fund the shelter until those were addressed. Today, the Recovery Resources facility receives funding from Aspen Valley Hospital, the town of Snowmass Village and Pitkin County. Though the city does not assist the Recovery Resources facility with funds, Aspen police often send unhoused individuals there for services. 

Ott told county commissioners that city council had directed her to change the strategy toward people experiencing homelessness in Aspen, and staff were exploring a range of options to present to council, including “changing spaces to be less appealing as long-term hangouts.” Guth told the Aspen Daily News that these changes would involve things like trimming trees, not “spikes on park benches.” 

City council members are holding an executive session on Monday to discuss possible reclassification of some misdemeanors in the municipal code, which could allow municipal judges to give out more serious sentences for those offenses. 

Thomas holds that these kinds of changes will only deepen the stress of being unhoused. 

“They’re going to spend the money on making it difficult. Yes, it’s already pretty damn difficult,” Thomas said. 

City council members indicated that some county commissioners were not aware of the disturbances the small group seemed to be causing for Aspen community members. Commissioner Francie Jacober said she was unaware of unwelcome behaviors happening in the city, and Mayor Torre said it was a “good thing” he wasn’t aware of them, adding that “some things are going on.” 

Uptick in complaints

Jerez said the police department has seen an uptick in complaints regarding unhoused people in the last year. He attributes that uptick to community sentiment, saying the increase has not stemmed from a change in policing practices. 

“We’re seeing the uptick because our community is unwilling to accept this blatant disregard for our laws, our rules or regulations and our societal norms. We’re getting more of those complaints than we’ve had in years past,” Jerez said. 

Thomas said cases where he receives disorderly conduct or trespassing charges often arise when he is standing up against mistreatment from employees or officials at various locations in the city. 

Guth said in a phone call he also was receiving complaints from business owners in Aspen’s downtown core who have dealt with repeated acts of theft, trespass and verbal abuse or harassment from a small number of individuals. Guth said a person had stolen a set of keys to his own office on East Cooper Avenue and slept in the office through several nights. He said the acts were captured by security cameras. 

Guth, who moved to Aspen in 2010, said these behaviors have become more prevalent than he has ever known them to be. 

Typically, Jerez said the police department tries to connect unhoused people with services and caseworkers as soon as possible. But police can’t force anyone to accept these services. The only thing they can force them to do is to go to jail.

Jerez said most of these arrests don’t involve a lot, or any, jail time. The police ticket individuals and then leave them be. Then, those individuals enter the court system. 

Both a prosecutor and a public defender working in Colorado’s 9th Judicial District, which includes Pitkin County, told the Aspen Daily News that the court system does not help unhoused individuals or do much to prevent some of them from committing continued offenses. 

“A course of force into the court system isn’t necessarily helping anything,” said Alex Haynes, who heads the Glenwood Springs office of the Colorado Public Defender. “And as cases pile up, you know, the criminal system’s response to that is typically to ramp up punishment or ramp up consequences. And it just turns into this general spiral where the goal of doing better is not being accomplished.”

Deputy District Attorney Tony Hershey said that even when judges in other districts give unhoused people long jail sentences in reaction to their repeat offenses, those individuals often come out of the jail after a year or so and go right back to their old lifestyle. 

He also said that fines are close to meaningless for unhoused individuals, who often have little or no financial resources.

Haynes, Hershey and Assistant City Attorney Kate Johnson have all said that individuals facing charges rarely take their cases to trial, often reaching plea agreements instead. 

Haynes said he has learned of multiple unhoused people in Aspen who were seeking housing through established services in Pitkin County and were rejected from housing opportunities because of their ongoing criminal cases or records. 

Guth contends that the city should prosecute all crimes as needed and hold people accountable for their behavior.

“There’s a lot of frustration particularly from business owners in the core who are seeing the same people do these things over and over again, and, you know, essentially get away with it,” Guth said. “I’m sympathetic to homeless people. I’ve spent a lot of my life volunteering and donating to people who are food insecure and homeless. But I don’t think that it’s appropriate for a community to not prosecute criminal behavior and not have real consequences for criminal behavior. There’s a difference between someone being in an unfortunate situation and providing resources to help them and tolerating that behavior.”

‘Land of opportunity’

At the time of his interview with the Aspen Daily News in March, Thomas said he had been temporarily or permanently banned from both of downtown’s Aspen’s grocery stores (City Market and Clark’s) and the Pitkin County Library. He said he also was just coming off a ban from Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses. 

Part of the reason for the bans was alcohol-related, Thomas said. Thomas said he is an alcoholic and that he will not seek treatment in the near term, but hopes to get sober at some point.

During a joint interview, Thomas’s friend Paul Kennedy, who also is unhoused, poured himself and Thomas multiple cups of whiskey. Kennedy told Thomas he doesn’t like it when Thomas’s hands shake after he hasn’t had a drink. 

“I don’t like it either,” Thomas replied. “I will eventually break that.” 

Jerez said addiction and substance abuse is present for every one of the unhoused individuals in the small group of repeat offenders. 

Thomas said the stress of living outside drives many people to self-medicate. 

In the end, he said he doesn’t want to be unhoused forever. He wants to find work and housing, though he’s hesitant to leave the Aspen area. Thomas said he arrived in Aspen after he divorced his wife in Georgia and came west looking for work during the 2008 financial crisis. 

Unable to find a job in Las Vegas, he wound up in the Roaring Fork Valley. Thomas said he learned how to build improvised shelters designed for mountain weather, and has called Aspen home ever since. One day, he hopes to start his own business. 

“This is a land of opportunity right here. There’s a lot of opportunity. And the people are so nice. I’ve been across the country. I’m telling you the people here will pick you up when you fall,” Thomas said.