Rural Colorado's hidden homelessness & poverty FWD

Tom Boland (
Fri, 19 Feb 1999 20:03:07 -0800 (PST)
FWD  Denver Post - Feb. 15, 1999


     By Christine Smith
     Special to The Denver Post

Feb. 15 - SALIDA - Poverty and homelessness in Colorado are not just urban
problems, as the residents of Chaffee County and other rural counties know.

Due to a lack of affordable housing and the existence of primarily low wage
jobs, a number of families and individuals find themselves displaced,
although the problem is not always highly visible.

"There is in this community, as in most communities, a silent unnumbered
group of people who live in poverty...sometimes in very dangerous
situations," said the Rev. Christine Richardson of the First United
Methodist Church of Salida.

Despite economic growth and decreasing unemployment, homeless and poverty
rates remain a cause of concern across rural Colorado. According to a 1996
survey by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, service providers from
rural communities throughout Colorado reported seeing an additional 12,000
clients in need of emergency shelter or rental assistance in 1995 alone.

The coalition estimates that nearly 30 percent of homeless people in
Colorado live in rural communities, where their problems are compounded due
to the small staffs and limited financial resources of local governments.
Serving as the president of Salida's Ministerial Alliance, Richardson has
witnessed a growing number of families, particularly single mothers, in
need of food and shelter. Some have been living out of their cars.

"It's very hard to maintain a middle class in a recreational community like
this," said Richardson. "When we look at the demographics in this county,
we see a wide disparity between the hourly employees that support the
recreational enterprises and the current residents who are often retiring
from out of state."

Between 1980 and 1990, there was a 26 percent increase of mothers entering
the workforce out of economic necessity in Chaffee County, according to the
1990 census. And just under 25 percent of all school-age children in the
county are considered low income, with 30 percent of Buena Vista School
District students eligible for the free/reduced lunch program. Part of the
increase may be due to the higher than state average of teen births in
Chaffee County.

"There are an awful lot of moms who are required to find work who have
children who need to be cared for. They are supposed to be becoming
financially self-sufficient, but it's extremely difficult for them. I think
they come here because this is a smaller, safer community and people are
good here...they help," Richardson said.

Help comes in a variety of ways, from the religious community, private
humanitarian organizations, social services, and the Harry Cable Memorial
United Transient Aid Fund, administered by the police department.

"We don't have all the amenities of the Front Range (such as a Salvation
Army), so we have to handle it through the police. We do a lot of different
things," said Sgt. Michael Bowers of the Salida police department, who is
assigned to crime prevention and community policing, and has coordinated
the Transient Aid Fund since 1982.

Established in 1959 by police Chief Harry Cable and a local attorney,
Robert Rush, it was the result of their wishing to assist a young man who
was being released from jail with no money and no place to go.

The fund has evolved due to the support of local churches, civic groups,
and elementary school children. In 1997, 123 people were assisted with
emergency financial aid with a total expenditure of $1,854.

Although the number served has remained fairly constant over the last
several years, Bowers worries the number of people needing help will rise.

"People need to really look at the homeless with the rents going higher and
the low wages. ... I anticipate it's only going to get worse."

The average sales price for a house in Chaffee County in 1995 was $93,151,
and monthly rent for a 3-bedroom apartment in Buena Vista averaged $600.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers households
paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing to be living in
unaffordable housing. As of 1990, 25.5 percent of all Chaffee County
households were paying more than 30 percent of their total income toward

Robert Christiansen, director of the Chaffee County Department of Social
Services, said it takes a unified effort to find solutions.

"I think those issues are recognized. The question is how to find the most
viable solution that makes sense," he said. "I don't know that I've seen a
real concerted effort across the board from all the institutions within the
community to do that. We (Social Services) see ourselves as a player in
that process, not necessarily the lead player."

Christiansen also views the economic development, as well as the future of
welfare reform, as key factors to watch.

"Times are going to be challenging for all of the counties and communities
that are trying to find those answers," said Christiansen.

"I think we're doing an adequate job of trying to do that. The workforce
development community board is trying to set up a career center to train
and educate people in areas they need help in is a start. They operate a
center in the Salida area.

"My guess is as welfare reform continues over the next three to four years,
we'll get a better sense of where families are going or migrating.
Depending on the time of year, there will be an influx of individuals that
move into the county for employment and other reasons."


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