By now, most of the local community has heard that more than 26,000 Venezuelan newcomers have been bused to Denver by Republican governors from other states. But some may not have heard about the 80 Venezuelans who were discovered living beneath a bridge in Carbondale last month, a number that has grown to more than 125 in December.
Six weeks since the story broke about the incident, about 60 of the Venezuelans are in a volunteer-led shelter with little government guidance, while the others still sleep outside in cars.
Carbondale is not unique. From Vail to Aspen — Eagle, Gypsum, Glenwood and El Jebel in between — the promise of employment opportunities in mountain resort communities has always attracted new waves of workers. The difference this time around is the poor job we have done planning for adequate workforce housing that meets our labor demand, exposing just how ill-prepared our safety nets and human services ecosystem are to handle these new types of crises.
Even mobile home parks, which supported past generations of workers sometimes cramming 10 people in a single mobile home, are no longer available to house this new wave of immigrant workers — at least not within a drive of two to three hours from the job sites.
The incident in Carbondale has revealed deep gaps in the human services needed to deal with nontraditional unhoused and underhoused individuals in our mountain communities. Then there’s the fact that this group is made up of recent immigrants who have urgent and immediate integration needs, which most mountain communities do not know how to meet very well. Besides English classes, most services offered to long-term immigrants through existing channels assume people are somewhat integrated, have some form of income, and do not need emergency shelter.
Equally significant, the incident displayed the lack of coordination required between municipalities and nonprofits within the region to respond to this type of crisis, which will surely become more prevalent in mountain resort communities where jobs are plentiful but housing options for low-wage workers no longer exist.
The organization I direct, Voces Unidas de las Montañas, specializes in advocacy, not human services. But since learning of the first wave of unhoused Venezuelans arriving in Carbondale six weeks ago, we have found ourselves on the front lines of this crisis, working to provide shelter and other services to this vulnerable group of people simply because no other organization — local and state government included — was prepared to do so.
During that time, we’ve learned many lessons. Foremost among them is the reality that mountain towns are not immune to what is happening in the big cities and must come to terms with what has been happening for decades in these valleys: people move to find work. Much like drought and wildfire, it’s not a matter of if, but when we will see similar scenarios to that in Carbondale play out in surrounding communities.
I know for a fact that Venezuelans have also been living in cars in Eagle County proper. Even folks who call Carbondale home now make the trip to Vail in search of day jobs, especially after a snowstorm, when snow removal workers are needed by the dozens. Summit County has them. Steamboat as well. Grand Junction, too. Wherever there is work, willing workers will follow.
While the recent influx of new arrivals has caught Carbondale and even large cities like Denver off guard, other mountain resort communities still have an opportunity to get ahead of the issue and develop a coordinated strategy to prepare for the inevitable. We’ve seen municipalities throughout Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties design and apply seamless unified responses to natural disasters like wildfires, yet in the case of unhoused people in the heart of winter, they have yet to learn how to work together.
On a positive note, if we do this right, we can get people back on their feet quicker than if we were dealing with traditional homelessness. For example, most of the Venezuelan newcomers in Carbondale qualify for work permits through their Temporary Protected Status, a benefit that many other immigrants are not granted. Employment means income, and income will enable them to move forward, out of the shelter and into a more stable housing situation. We just have to get them there.
Voces Unidas has been working with immigration attorneys to educate these new arrivals on how to apply for TPS, so towns like Carbondale — or Avon or Eagle or Glenwood — won’t have to sustain this model forever. But local and state governments must embrace the role as leaders in this initiative, moving quickly so local services are stressed for as little time as possible. Additionally, we need resorts and other major employers that initially attracted these newcomers with the unspoken promise of employment to play a role in the response. After all, it’s their future workforce we are all trying to help.
Ultimately, it will require a community-wide effort to welcome and integrate our new neighbors, and as our communities continue to grow, they will require leadership to coordinate and expand services along with them. There may not be anyone living under a bridge in Eagle County, yet, but homelessness, immigration and how we accommodate new arrivals are issues we can no longer afford to overlook.
Alex Sánchez is the founder and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas and Voces Unidas Action Fund, non-profit organizations working in Summit, Lake, Eagle, Pitkin, and Garfield counties. His column appears monthly in the Vail Daily.