One-time help won't cut it this time.
As the new reality in poverty's changing statistics takes hold, local families' financial hardships have gone from “crisis to chronic” through no fault of their own, said the Rev. Andrew Cooley of St. Mark's Episcopal Church and countless others in the community who run social service programs.
“There is an illusion in Durango among some people and agencies that helping a family one time can keep them from falling off the brink,” Cooley said.
The illusion sometimes leads to a lack of compassion in the community for families who need more than a small sum to get through or require help repeatedly, he said.
The shame of it all
Many families the Herald interviewed said they felt blamed and belittled for seeking help.
“She made me feel like I was taking money directly from her wallet,” Theresa Rodriguez, 23, said of a Human Services employee who processed her application for government assistance.
She walked away feeling ashamed and the feelings still linger, she said.
For single mother Nicole Pearson, who struggles to survive despite having a college degree and a full-time career working for the Tri-County Head Start program, asking for help has been hard – even “humiliating.”
Pearson is thankful for assistance that fills gaps her income can't: income-based rent, federal food assistance, child care and health insurance assistance. But she feels ashamed and embarrassed by the fact that she needs that help.
“I feel like people are judged and treated differently anywhere you go for help in this town,” Pearson said with tears streaming down her cheeks.
Other parents, such as Laura and John Golay, describe unfriendly glares from impatient shoppers in line behind them at local stores as their government aid checks are entered into the checkout computer systems.
“Nothing puts more of a spotlight on you than when you are standing there with all these separate orders and WIC checks,” Golay said.
It's not a problem limited to La Plata County. A recent Pew study suggests that nearly three in four Americans believe the country's poor are too dependent on public assistance programs.
But when people in need are treated insensitively because they are seeking help, Pearson said “it takes real guts to go back” if hard times don't end.
The families said they don't linger on the pain or dwell on people who look the other way when their impoverishment is apparent.
Instead, they said they assume their neighbors don't know about their plight and the unsympathetic social service providers perhaps know too well after years of trying to help.
“I know it's a hard job to have,” said single mother Diana Williams, who once considered training to become a social worker but changed her mind after applying for public assistance. Williams said she feared the sad stories of the workday would torment her at night.
Local aid providers said they do their best to remain compassionate while also trying to limit abuse of social services in La Plata County.
Numbers are tracked and collaborations have formed to prevent people from seeking help at multiple organizations. Help for those who have received assistance before is often limited.
“We're trying not to create dependencies,” said Sara Smith, director of the Durango Food Bank.
This approach seems to be working, officials say.
The food bank had just 7 percent of its families turn to the organization for help more than once in 2010. The organization gave away 114,000 pounds of food, amounting to 17,000 meals between January and October of last year. That's up 33 percent over 2009 and doesn't include another 1,600 local households that received federal food commodities through the food bank.
Smith said these “powerful numbers” prove abuse is minimal even as needs in the community are growing rapidly.
Numbers at other organizations were similar.
All but a handful of the approximately 150 people who eat at Manna Soup Kitchen each day have “simply fallen on hard times and had no safety net,” said Executive Director Sarah Comerford.
“Definitely, some local folks have logged into the assistance system,” said River Church Pastor Dwight Saunders, adding that those cases are few, and more cooperation might further reduce the number of people abusing social service programs.
Cooley said in his experience, some families have grown skilled at maneuvering support systems out of necessity, but it doesn't make them less needy.
Social service providers said they struggle to cope with the desperation they see in families' faces.
Needs are rising rapidly. Resources are not, they said. The families' tales are “heart wrenching,” Cooley said.
“The fatigue on the helpers gets expressed as frustration and annoyance,” he said, “and you can't legislate compassion.”
He believes that more helpers, resources and compassion from the community could inspire and rejuvenate weary social service workers and struggling families.
These changes also could lead to a more connected community, in which financial crisis often is averted before public assistance is needed, he said.
Scores of others in the community echoed that view.
“What this community needs is more people helping each other, more random acts of kindness,” said Warren Smith, kitchen manager at Manna Soup Kitchen. “Don't let the people around you and their circumstances be invisible.”
“We need to adopt a policy of getting to know our neighbors, a do-ask, do-tell philosophy,” Comerford said.