As a single mother with a 3-year-old boy, Diana Williams faces tough decisions every day.
Like what to cut when the grocery bill is the only thing left.
“I could maybe get by eating ramen noodles and hot dogs every day.” Williams said. “But that's not OK for a growing boy.”
Williams is a lifelong resident of La Plata County, and she's been working full time since she was a teenager. But full-time work has never been enough.
“I can't afford to live in this town,” Williams said.
It's a heartbreaking thought for Williams because her family and roots are here. And her son, Joseph, revels in the love and attention he receives from their extended family.
Officials and advocates for the needy say Williams' story is not unusual. The economic downturn coupled with rising living costs and low service-sector wages in La Plata County are sending many local families packing.
River Church Pastor Dwight Saunders and others said the economic downturn is making it painfully clear that, unless something changes, “our children aren't going to be able to afford to live here.”
Williams said the hardships have been mounting for years.
With chronic bronchitis and no access to affordable health care, she has a mountain of debt.
“You find yourself in a place where there's no cushion, so every little expense that comes along feels like a nightmare,” Williams said.
When her car broke down recently, Williams had to beg a local towing company to move it to her mother's front yard until money could be found to fix it.
The heating bill for the 50-year-old single-wide trailer she rents could at any moment throw her finances off track, she said.
“I've only had my heater on for four days, and I'm already worried,” Williams said in November.
She recently qualified for federal food assistance and health insurance through Medicaid. But that was only after she lost her job and returned to college full-time.
She sees higher education as her ticket to a better life outside of Durango.
For years, she made just a little too much per year to qualify for the assistance she receives now.
The lack of help meant periods of homelessness, when she and her son would sleep on living room floors and couches at friends' or family members' homes.
“People treated me like I was lazy and irresponsible because we couldn't afford the basics, but I was working 40 hours a week and always took good care of my child,” Williams said.
Often, the cheapest rental property she could find, coupled with the cost of day care, amounted to more each month than Williams' take-home pay.
She said she's never qualified for local housing assistance programs because of a felony conviction five years ago.
“I did something stupid when I was 19,” Williams said.
She knowingly accepted a fraudulent check from a friend while working at a local convenience store.
Talking about the hardest moments of the last few years reduces Williams to tears.
She hates needing help. And she felt ashamed and blamed every time she's had to seek it.
“Most people I know that are living in poverty work harder than anyone else in this town,” she said with a quiet sob. “If you're lucky enough to find a job right now, it probably pays $8 an hour and won't sustain your family.”
Williams doesn't think they'll stay in La Plata County after she graduates from college.
Even with a degree, she doubts they could make it without help. And she refuses to accept a life on public assistance.
“It's too hard,” Williams said. “If you're not rich, you have to be totally broke and on the system to survive here.”