They were police officers, cooks and farmers before they fled political instability and violence in their home country, hoping to start over in the United States.
Now, as fall slips toward winter in the Colorado mountains, the group of about 80 Venezuelans has been sheltering in tents and cars near a bridge over the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale.
Most of the migrants arrived in Denver over the past few months on buses from the Texas-Mexico border, then, based on word of mouth, bought cheap vehicles or found rides to Carbondale because they heard there was better-paying work in the mountains. The group that began gathering this summer has since grown to 80 people, with about 25 vehicles that have been parked under Colorado 133 near a boat ramp and beside trees losing their last leaves.
Last week, as snow began to fall and temperatures dipped into the teens, local officials and nonprofit workers stepped in to help. But in the Roaring Fork Valley, housing resources are scarce. Nonprofit groups and officials from neighboring Pitkin County, home to Aspen, began meeting with Garfield County leaders to help Carbondale, a city of 6,500 people about 30 miles down valley from Aspen.
“We don’t really have a lot of housing availability — we don’t have housing for the people that are already here,” said Francie Jacober, a Pitkin County commissioner.
Jacober first heard of the Venezuelans below the bridge when a neighbor asked for coats, hats and gloves to bring to the migrants. “That is when I started calling around and nobody had heard of this situation,” she said. “How can that many people be living under the bridge and nobody is aware of it? Some had been there since July.”
Venezuelans who were sleeping in tents under the bridge and in their vehicles, heaters running, were invited last week to line their blankets and camping mats on the floor in a meeting space used for community events. About half of them have been sleeping indoors, while the rest remained in their vehicles, either in the center parking lot or by the river.
Jacober brought dinner three nights in a row — huge pots of chili with rice, lamb and beef stew, and beef burritos. Pitkin County donated 50 cots, which the county had stocked up on last year after the governors of Texas and Florida sent migrants to Martha’s Vineyard and other wealthy communities. They were concerned Aspen was next.
The world has come to our little valley.
— Colin Laird, Carbondale town trustee
For now, the Venezuelans in Carbondale are keeping warm at night in the community room of Third Street Center, a hub for nonprofits. Community officials are planning to bring portable toilets to the parking lot of Third Street, which so far has set no limit on how many nights it will house the migrants.
“The world has come to our little valley,” said Colin Laird, executive director of Third Street Center and a Carbondale town trustee. “Everybody wants to do the right thing and hopefully we can.
“Denver is much bigger and has a lot more resources and they are struggling. There doesn’t seem to be a really good, coherent plan for these kinds of things. It’s not going to go away so we need to start planning for how we expand it beyond helping the people who move under our bridge.”
Before dawn each morning, many of the migrants gather in the parking lot of a Latino market, hoping to get picked up for a day’s work. A few have been landscaping at an Aspen mansion. Others are doing construction. Jacober hired one person to work in her son’s restaurant.
Luis Alejandro Díaz, who was a state police officer in Venezuela, told The Colorado Sun he has been getting temporary jobs in construction. He and other Venezuelans waited last weekend in the parking lot of Garcia’s, a market that sells Latin American breakfast plates and groceries. They usually get hired by 10 a.m. if it’s going to happen.
Díaz said he’s applied for a work permit through the federal government, part of the “temporary protected status” application process that President Joe Biden approved for Venezuelans in September. “With stable work, you solve the rest,” Díaz said in Spanish. “You solve your roof, your food.”
Díaz said he has already been able to send several hundred dollars back to his family. “I have a lot of commitment because right now I have a brother that I left seriously ill there, my sick mother, my children,” he said.
Alejandro Colina, left, a Venezuelan migrant, and Luis Diaz, right, who left Venezuela due to corruption, lean against their cars in the Carbondale Boat Ramp parking lot after not finding work for the day. (Will Sardinsky, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Alejandro Colina, top, a Venezuelan migrant, and Luis Diaz, bottom, who left Venezuela due to corruption, lean against their cars in the Carbondale Boat Ramp parking lot after not finding work for the day. (Will Sardinsky, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Alejandro Colina, also among the men looking for a job last weekend, said some in the group have been taken advantage of by people who paid them less than what they had promised. A nonprofit surveyed the migrants last week and several of them said they had experienced wage theft. “You have to stay silent and take the little they give you, out of necessity,” Colina said.
“We don’t come here to look for problems. We come here to look for a future, to work.”
The migrants said they are making money, and many used their first earnings to buy vehicles. They slept under the bridge on cardboard boxes and in tents until they were able to work enough hours to buy cars. Colina paid $1,800 for a truck, which is where he sleeps with the heater cranked up.
“We started working and everyone started buying their own car to sleep inside, because the cold was horrible, horrible,” he said.
Temporary refuge at a nonprofit building comes as snow falls
Carbonale has no homeless shelter, and the closest one, in Aspen, has 12 beds plus six overflow spots, all of which are full. There’s also a waiting list.
Since the pandemic, Pitkin County has been able to move 27 people out of homelessness and into housing. The waiting list, though, has 29 names.
Alex Sánchez, CEO of the nonprofit advocacy group Voces Unidas de las Montañas, urged the Roaring Fork community to quickly find a more permanent place for the Venezuelans to get out of the cold, suggesting that perhaps Carbondale could lease a vacant City Market grocery store. Voces Unidas is one of about 20 nonprofits in the Roaring Fork Valley now working with the migrants, who have chosen a committee of about 10 among them to speak up in conversations with local leaders.
LEFT: Carlos Gonzalez, one of the migrant group’s elected representatives, plays a song from Venezuela on his phone for MinTze Wu. Wu, executive director of the nonprofit VOICES and a violinist, played music for the migrants. RIGHT: A man from Venezuela gathers donated bedding at a makeshift shelter. (Photos by Will Sardinsky, Special to The Colorado Sun)
ABOVE: Carlos Gonzalez, one of the migrant group’s elected representatives, plays a song from Venezuela on his phone for MinTze Wu. Wu, executive eirector of the nonprofit VOICES and a violinist, played music for the migrants. BELOW: A man from Venezuela gathers donated bedding at a makeshift shelter. (Photos by Will Sardinsky, Special to The Colorado Sun)
The Roaring Fork Valley should not think of the Venezuelans as anything other than new neighbors, he said.
“We should be treating this group of newcomers as we would be treating 80 white people we found under a bridge,” Sánchez said. “The most immediate need right now is shelter. Not housing, shelter.”
Voces Unidas surveyed the group last week and got 54 responses. Three-quarters of them are men, and most are in the 20s and 30s. At first, there were three children at the bridge, but the children and their mother were taken in by a church for a few days before returning to Denver, where they could access more resources to help them get settled with housing and food assistance, Sánchez said.
We should be treating this group of newcomers as we would be treating 80 white people we found under a bridge.
— Alex Sánchez, CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas
Most of the Venezuelans arrived in Colorado before the end of July, and many purchased inexpensive vehicles in Denver or in the mountains. Sánchez said his outreach workers counted more than 25 vehicles parked by the river — many without license plates or insurance, and drivers without licenses.
About three-quarters of the group said they were sleeping in their cars, while others were sleeping in tents before they were offered space in the community meeting room, according to Voces’ survey.
Before Voces Unidas got involved, the migrants were continually being told by law officers that they had to pick up their tents and move their vehicles, Sánchez said. “They were being removed once or twice a day, like 1 a.m., sometimes,” he said. “They would scatter and move cars, and they eventually would still come back to the bridge.”
LEFT: Frost rests on the grass in the Carbondale Boat Ramp parking lot on the morning of Nov. 11. RIGHT: Several unoccupied tents lay under a bridge over the Roaring Fork River upstream from the boat ramp. (Will Sardinsky, Special to The Colorado Sun)
ABOVE: Frost rests on the grass in the Carbondale Boat Ramp parking lot on the morning of Nov. 11. BELOW: Several unoccupied tents lay under a bridge over the Roaring Fork River upstream from the boat ramp. (Will Sardinsky, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Sánchez said he persuaded Carbondale city officials to stop enforcing the camping ban, but then realized — after migrants told them they were still being asked to vacate — the area was also patrolled by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. In the summer especially, the parking lot along the Roaring Fork is a popular access point for rafting and fishing.
Carbondale Police Chief Kirk Wilson confirmed the city is not enforcing the camping ban, with no end date on that temporary policy. “It is my intention to pause enforcement until our new neighbors have received some sort of housing so that they are out of the elements,” he said.
“From the town’s and my perspective, this is a humanitarian crisis,” the chief said. “We are in this for the long haul. Obviously, Carbondale is a small mountain town with limited capacity.”
In the months since the migrants moved under the bridge, there has been one incident that resulted in arrests. Police picked up two men near the bridge on charges of assault after they were accused of breaking glass bottles and using them to fight around 1 a.m. Nov. 4. One of the migrants was slashed on the hand and taken to the hospital. Officers found a box-cutter knife with blood on it on the ground, according to a police report.
Frisco also struggling to help new residents from South America
Other mountain towns have seen an increase in newcomers from South America, though not as dramatically as in Carbondale.
Frisco has a growing population of Nicaraguans who are drawn to the ski town next to Breckenridge because they hear through their networks that there is work, said Peter Bakken, executive director of the immigrant advocacy organization Mountain Dreamers.
“People come up here because they are looking for work and they hear through word of mouth that other people are up here,” he said. “There are a lot of entry-level jobs here. Construction work. Restaurants. Lodging. People are coming, many without work authorization.”
In Frisco and neighboring Silverthorne, there is a growing population of people from Guatemala, Colombia and Venezuela, but most of the newcomers are Nicaraguans, Bakken said. They began arriving about a year and a half ago, and are doubling up in motel rooms and low-income apartment complexes.
“They’re living on couches and floors,” he said. “A couple of hotels have become centers of where migrants are living. They are definitely in crowded living conditions.”
Mountain Dreamers has been visiting the motels and apartments, offering immigrants help with legal documents and links to local resources. But when it comes to housing, they have nothing to offer. The area is so short on affordable housing that teachers are living in vehicles.
“Housing is the biggest problem,” Bakken said. “We don’t have housing. Neither does anyone else.”
Migrants arriving in Denver surpasses 27,000
Since Christmas, more than 27,000 migrants from Venezuela have arrived on buses in Denver. Officials estimate that about 6,000 or more have remained in Colorado, while others received bus tickets to other cities, mostly New York and Chicago. Denver currently has more than 2,000 migrants in temporary shelters.
While many have followed the legal process to apply for asylum, they have yet to apply for temporary protected status or work authorization.
Joan Franco Torres Román, who is among those living in vehicles in Carbondale, spent about a month in Denver before going to the mountain town. In Denver, he slept in a tent in front of a hotel, getting jobs that paid only $8 or $10 per hour, even though minimum wage in the city is $17.29. In Carbondale, he’s earning up to $25 per hour.
Román said he was 14 when he left Venezuela six years ago with his family and then spent a few years in Colombia. In Venezuela, his mother was once kidnapped and his family was extorted by local mafias who wanted the earnings from the family’s crops. Now, he sends money back to his 8-year-old brother and his mother, who earns money selling arepas, cornmeal cakes filled with meat, beans or vegetables.
“I had to emigrate to look for a better future,” he said.