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Migrants drawn to Colo. mountain towns find work is plentiful but shelter is limited

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Big cities across the country are struggling to accommodate thousands of migrants arriving from Venezuela and other countries. But some small towns are also seeing an influx of migrants, too. Halle Zander with Aspen Public Radio reports on a group drawn to Colorado's mountains where labor is in constant demand.

HALLE ZANDER, BYLINE: Libia Guzman spent the past year walking from Venezuela to the U.S. fleeing threats of military violence. And along the way, she nearly escaped a kidnapping, went without food for days and occasionally sought refuge in churches or people's basements. After crossing into Texas, she made her way north to Denver but quickly realized she didn't want to stay. She's speaking with the help of an interpreter.

LIBIA GUZMAN: (Through interpreter) Because in Denver, I was living in a car. Then I went to an emergency shelter. But it wasn't my environment. There were many sick people with drugs, and I felt unsafe.

ZANDER: So with the promise of work in Aspen's resort economy, Guzman last month made her way to Carbondale, a nearby town of roughly 6,000. She joined a group of about 125 migrants, mostly from Venezuela, who were living under a bridge at the entrance to the small town. She's hopeful she can find stable housing nearby with her girlfriend and her girlfriend's kids.

GUZMAN: (Through interpreter) It's quiet. It's safe. And if there's job, I'm fine. That what I really want to do. I want to get a job so I can help them and help my family in Venezuela.

ZANDER: Carbondale doesn't have many services to support unhoused people. A portion of the local community center is sheltering 60 people but has had to turn others away almost every night due to lack of capacity. So many are still sleeping outside in cars and tents. And with temperatures in Colorado's high country getting much colder...

ALEX SANCHEZ: That's not going to be a viable shelter. It is winter. It is Colorado. People will die.

ZANDER: Alex Sanchez is president and CEO of Voces Unidas, a local Latino advocacy organization. They've been trying to support the new arrivals by organizing volunteers. Other nonprofits are involved, but none has taken the lead.

SANCHEZ: Who's in charge? We need government to step up and do the coordination, and we need the nonprofits that receive the funding for food, for housing, for vouchers, for homelessness to be able to do the direct services.

ZANDER: Local organizations say they were already strapped trying to meet local needs before the migrants arrived. Some state funding is available, but town officials say it's limited, and they can only request it once. And town staff worry that offering too many services could send the wrong message. Carbondale town manager Lauren Gister.

LAUREN GISTER: The prime priority was life safety, getting people out of the cold. But we also don't want to issue an open invitation and, all of a sudden, end up with 500 people.

ZANDER: Towns in the area were anticipating something like this. Neighboring Pitkin County ordered 50 cots last year after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis flew migrants to Martha's Vineyard. Last month, they lent those cots to Carbondale's emergency shelter. For her part, Guzman has found temporary subsidized housing in Aspen. And by caring for her girlfriend's kids, she got a new drive.

GUZMAN: They are the kids that God gave me. And every day, they make me want to live and continue to fight.

ZANDER: But they're just one family. Town trustees say if other local governments could chip in and housed 10 to 15 people, the challenge would be a lot more manageable. And Guzman and her friends could secure work permits, find steady jobs and start building a life for themselves.

For NPR News, I'm Halle Zander.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEQUERBOARD'S "THE SORROW BIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Halle Zander
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