A look at Grand County’s hidden homeless and the agencies offering help
Mountain Family Center is the front line to help residents stay housed
A sprawling tent encampment by a highway underpass. A person huddled in a sleeping bag in a stairwell. Another holding a sign asking for change at a street intersection. A run-down community in a major city, like Hell’s Kitchen in New York City or the Tenderloin in San Francisco. These are the images typically conjured when a person thinks of homelessness. Although homelessness in Grand County may seem less visible, it’s no less pressing of an issue. And the nonprofit Mountain Family Center is at the front lines in the effort to help the county’s homeless population, providing provides hunger relief, housing assistance, clothing vouchers and more to those in need.
According to Helen Sedlar, the center’s executive director and president, there are roughly 75 homeless people in Grand County. This number drops down to around 25-30 people in the winter months.
“Those are only the people we’re aware of, so there could be more than this,” Sedlar said. She explained that these numbers are hard to track in Grand County because many transient individuals may not in fact consider themselves homeless, or are only passing through Grand for a time. This includes people who are shuffling between living with friends (sometimes called couch surfing) or camping out of their vehicles.
Couch surfing and car camping are both common forms of housing for individuals unable to find permanent homes in Grand County, due to unaffordable shelter and the transient nature of a resort community. These living situations are referred to as “precarious housing” because they can be easily disrupted.
Sedlar said that for some people, risk of homelessness is increasing day by day, due to current economic inflation. “Inflation impacts rural areas the hardest,” Sedlar said. According to a recent study by the Congressional Budget Office, rural areas have experienced an inflation rate that’s 130% higher than urban areas since the pandemic began. In resort communities like Grand County, which already faces lack of urban infrastructure, high cost of living and a housing crisis, inflation can be the last nail in the coffin for some families.
“People are struggling,” Sedlar said. “They’re juggling between bills and having to decide which they can pay. They can pay their rent this month, but not a medical bill.”
Since the pandemic began, the center has seen more people requesting rent and utility assistance. In 2019, Mountain Family Center’s last “average” year, the organization provided 117 households with rent/mortgage assistance. They assisted 301 households in 2020, 132 households in 2021 and 42 households through April of this year.
“People are seeing rising gas prices and grocery prices,” Sedlar said. “And if they’re making $16-$18 an hour, with housing costs, they’ve gone below living paycheck to paycheck.”
According to The Associated Press, inflation over the past year has soared at its fastest pace in more than 40 years. In Grand County, many grocery items have increased by more than a dollar, and gas is currently over $4 per gallon. According to a February episode on American Public Media, rural Americans spend more on groceries and gas than their urban counterparts, even before inflation, due to things like having to drive farther to get to work, school or doctor’s appointments.
According to data from the 2020 census, an estimated 6.8% percent of Grand County’s population lives in poverty. Sedlar explained that hardships such as inflation can often drive those living in poverty into situational homelessness, which refers to an individual becoming unhoused because of a specific situation. Other examples include a medical emergency, family break up or loss of a job.
Situational homelessness can also be a choice. Some residents in Grand County find the appeal of a nomadic lifestyle, and find it much cheaper to live in their vehicles or camp out in a wilderness area or campground.
“Some people here live off the grid for awhile, then rehouse themselves in the fall when it starts to get cold,” Sedlar said.
Grand County also suffers from a lack of affordable housing. According to a 2019 study on Grand County housing, only 46% of homes are occupied year-round, leaving over half of residences as vacant or second homes. The county’s median gross rent from 2016-2020 has been $976 per month, and that cost is only going to go up.
“Landlords may decide to increase rent, or they choose to sell their home and (renters) need to rehouse,” Sedlar said. She added that, “lack of housing inventory plays a part, but isn’t the sole reason for homelessness.”
Hardships such as rising rent or inability to find a residence are common themes in Grand County, whether someone is just moving into the area or has rented for years. Most local residents who find themselves unhoused only experience situational homelessness. Eventually, they find a safe place to live and settle down. These residents have jobs and/or family members to support them. But there is a more complicated side to homelessness, which Sedlar stated is difficult to resolve in Grand County, as well as across the country, because of lack of resources.
“There’s chronic homelessness caused by underlying issues like drug addiction or mental health crises,” Sedlar said. She explained that drug addiction and mental health can often go hand in hand, one drastically affecting the other.
“If you have an addiction and are using throughout the day, you can lose your job and eventually your home,” Sedlar said. These issues are much deeper than inflation causing someone to be unable to pay rent this month, or a seasonal worker living out of their car until they can get back to work again.
“Chronic homelessness is caused by a system failure,” Sedlar said. “There’s a lack of support for homeless individuals who may have an addiction, or a mental or behavioral health need.”
Sedlar explained this system failure dates back to the 1960s and 1970s when psychiatric wards were deinstitutionalized. Politicians created laws to shut down mental institutions, where patients were sometimes held against their will, or suffered abuse and neglect by the staff. While these laws had good intentions, individuals became lost in society once they left psychiatric care.
“When these institutions closed, there was no strong structure to care for them,” Sedlar said. “They needed support to go back to mainstream society.”
Many former patients were incarcerated after committing crimes and others became homeless.
Fast forward to today, and there are still very few societal support centers for individuals struggling to find mental health care and/or drug rehabilitation care. This is painfully obvious in rural communities across the U.S., where there are few homeless shelters, drug rehabilitation centers, job placement services or mental health care services for homeless individuals. This makes homelessness seemingly more “invisible” in Grand, but there are still people struggling to find permanent shelter here every day.
“Just a homeless shelter on its own isn’t a solution; housing also needs to be tied to a complex support mechanism,” Sedlar said. The center concentrates on being this support mechanism by helping individuals in a homeless situation manage their state. Even if Grand County doesn’t have all the resources that urban areas have, it does have one asset cities may fall short on: a close-knit community of people willing to help and dedicated nonprofit services like Mountain Family Center.
The center offers a variety of services for outdoor residents struggling with homelessness. They partner with other community organizations, such as Mind Springs Health, Grand County Department of Human Services, law enforcement, health care providers such as Middle Park Health and Grand County Rural Health, the Grand Foundation and faith-based organizations.
“We try to concentrate on helping Grand County residents who have lived here for at least a year, but we don’t turn anyone away,” Sedlar said. She explained that the center can help temporarily house people until they get back on their feet. Mountain Family Center partners with law enforcement to provide homeless individuals with a few nights’ stay in a local hotel. The center can also offer temporary stays at a campground.
“We can provide bus, train or plane tickets for people to get to a family member or a safe environment,” Sedlar said. Other services include the center’s food pantries in Granby and Kremmling, where people can obtain groceries, toiletries and gas cards, or clothing, sleeping bags and tents (for those living outdoors).
Sedlar emphasized that people seeking help are never alone.
“Mountain Family Center and other community nonprofits are assisting with homelessness, and providing resources or referrals on an individual basis,” she said. “We can help rehouse individuals or families that are facing situational homelessness, and we provide support services to those in chronic homeless situations.”
If you know of someone who is facing homelessness, or is at risk of becoming homeless, Sedlar stated the best way to assist them is to refer them to a local nonprofit or other community service organization. No matter what situation a person or family is facing, there are many organizations in Grand County, like Mountain Family Center, that are ready, willing and able to help.
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