Despite public perception, the homeless aren’t a faceless group of shiftless, substance-abusing ne’er-do-wells. They are men, women and children just like the rest of us except for one thing – one turn or another has left them among the most fragile in our society.
How they’ve arrived at that point is an individual journey.
Sometimes, it’s pure economics: dropped out of school to work to survive; fired and foreclosed on after the recession struck; mired in severe poverty; or maybe just living in a town where the pay scale hasn’t kept up with the cost of living.
Other times, it is a consequence of trauma or life circumstances: fleeing domestic violence; wiped out financially because of a car accident or major illness; dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after fighting in a war; kicked out after teens tell their families they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender; mentally ill and possibly self-medicating with substance abuse; aged out of the foster-care system with no family support network.
It’s almost always a combination of factors, according to a “Priced Out in 2014” study, which examined, in particular, the affordable-housing challenges people with disabilities face, but the study also found the challenge existed for people confronting other kinds of difficulties.
Shaley Murphy of Durango has been homeless on and off since 2007.
“I’ve put in six years of work at restaurants and do random jobs such as landscaping, nannying, cleaning houses, taking care of animals and even playing guitar downtown,” Murphy said. “I’ve put a lot into this community and have helped many people. During my time here, I’ve couch-surfed, lived in my car, out in the woods and rented a few apartments.”
How prevalent is it?
There is no easy way to estimate the number of people in Durango who are homeless or housing-insecure – living one paycheck away from homelessness – in substandard housing or paying a disproportionate amount of their income on housing. Based on the large numbers of meals served at Manna Soup Kitchen and the Durango Food Bank, the significant number of children living at or below the poverty line who attend Durango School District 9-R and a community shelter that is bursting at the seams, the problem here is far-reaching. Living at or below the poverty line does not necessarily mean a family is homeless, but it does mean they are housing-insecure in a place such as La Plata County, where the cost of housing is high.
“It’s definitely happening here,” said Julie Popp, spokeswoman for Durango School District 9-R. “About 36 percent of the students in the district are at or below the poverty level, and it’s higher at some schools, like Animas Valley (Elementary School), where it’s more than 50 percent. There are numerous families living in motels.”
One Durango High School counselor told La Plata Youth Services that “dozens and dozens” of students are couch-surfing, but the embarrassment of homelessness for teenagers makes numbers difficult to confirm. A significant portion of homeless youths are either foster children who have aged out at 18 – statistics show 25 percent will be homeless at some time in the following 4½ years – or identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
About 40 percent of the homeless are families.
The National Center on Family Homelessness released its 2013 numbers in November 2014, and 2014’s numbers won’t be available until later this year. But the record-breaking numbers found in 2013 – 2.5 million children in the U.S. were homeless at some point in the year, one in every 30 American children, 44,565 in Colorado – show that the problem for families and youths is still severe. The center ranked Colorado 28th in the nation on its Homeless Children in America report card after evaluating states on the extent of child homelessness, the well-being of homeless children, the risk for child homelessness and state policy and planning on the subject.
People dealing with mental illness are often housing-insecure. Andrew Sperling, director of federal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, estimated that among the chronically homeless, 60 to 70 percent are dealing with some level of mental illness, and about 30 percent of those are dealing with a serious mental illness. NAMI found that about 8.4 million homeless Americans with mental illnesses are dealing with the co-occurring problem of substance abuse.
Despite the front-page news on panhandling, most of the La Plata County residents who are homeless or one paycheck away from homelessness are members of the workforce that keeps Durango running.
“If all the homeless people in Durango were panhandling, you wouldn’t be able to walk down Main (Avenue),” said Sarada Leavenworth, executive director of Volunteers of America, which runs both the Durango Community Shelter and Southwest Safehouse. “Most of the homeless people we see are working or looking for work.”
What is homelessness?
The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines the homeless as those living with family, couch-surfers and people who are doubling up – such as two families living in a space designed for one – as well as those who are sleeping on the street, in their cars or in shelters or jails.
Because of the nature of the problem – it’s hard to locate people who don’t have a permanent address, and housing situations can be fluid – getting any kind of count is difficult.
“HUD used to just count people in shelters and people in jails, but that’s not a terribly accurate way to count,” Sperling said.
NAMI collaborates with several other organizations regarding homelessness, because mental illness can be such a significant factor in housing-insecurity.
“Now we do a point-in-time count at night with a standard protocol, and we go where they are, under bridges, in cars, on streets,” he said.
Counts are always behind the curve because of the time needed to report data.
On the single night count in January 2014, HUD found more than 578,000 homeless in the U.S., 31 percent of whom were in unsheltered locations. They counted people they could find under bridges, or in cars or abandoned buildings, but they did not count those living in motels, sharing homes or living in substandard housing. But of the population they did count, homelessness had dropped 3 percent over the 2013 point-in-time count. HUD’s count does not extrapolate how many people will be homeless at some point during the year.
Colorado had a small percentage of the homeless in the count, coming in at 1.7 percent with 10,028 people counted.
Housing is expensive
Beyond homelessness lies another problem, which may be even more severe in La Plata County, and that’s spending too large a percentage of income on housing. The recommended portion of a family budget for housing is 30 percent, but when monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is running close to $1,000, the household has to bring in more than $44,000 annually to achieve that percentage.
About 25 percent of La Plata County households fall under that income level, said Rachel Taylor-Saghie, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of La Plata County. More than 51 percent of the households in La Plata County meet the income requirements to qualify for a Habitat house, she said.
“People will tell me they ended up in their car because they couldn’t pay rent, provide child care and food,” she said. “Families are paying 60 to 62 percent of their income on rent, and how long can they afford to do that?”
Paying such a large percentage of income on housing means less money for other essentials, leading many families into food insecurity. In the past seven years, the number of meals served at Manna Soup Kitchen has doubled to about 70,000 annually. The soup kitchen has added an evening meal on Wednesdays to feed families.
But it may be the Durango Food Bank that is really seeing families in need. Executive Director Sarah Smith said the food bank provided enough food for 460,000 meals in 2014, and they can hardly keep up. She said 13.2 percent of La Plata County residents – more than 6,800 people – miss one or more meals daily because of lack money, and about 38 percent of them do not qualify for assistance.