Even before the recession began hammering family finances, researchers say, many of Colorado's working families were falling fast into poverty.
The economic downturn continues to compound the problem. Many local families say they're losing hope for a better life here.
“There's no ‘American Dream' here for people like me,” said Durango mother Theresa Rodriguez, who said she struggles to get by.
A Bell Policy Center report issued last month said working families in Colorado are “sliding further away from self-sufficiency and the American Dream” and it has “dangerous implications” for children and the state's economic future.
Efforts are growing in La Plata County to tackle the challenges of poverty, at least in part because the people who are hurting are our neighbors. They work in our restaurants, supermarkets and schools. They fix frozen pipes, get broken-down cars running again and contribute to the community in countless ways.
Social service providers, clergy, advocates and public officials agree there's no magic solution to poverty. They say that reversing the tide of local families falling into poverty will take a melting pot of generous resources, motivated people, fresh ideas and organized efforts as diverse as the La Plata County community itself.
On the right track
While big-picture government policies and systems are important components in fighting poverty, families in need say they can't wait for ballot votes, legislative sessions or welfare reform to get help.
That's where some of the community's more than 200 charitable organizations come in.
Countless programs, offered by organizations such as Volunteers of America, Family Center of Durango, Women's Resource Center, Community Emergency Assistance Coalition and numerous others, offer creative ways to help families meet expenses not addressed by government programs. Depending on the organization and program, families can get help paying for utilities, medical prescriptions, dental work, car repairs and bus tickets.
Local churches, including Grace Church, The River Church and St. Mark's Episcopal Church, also are among many in the region that help struggling families pay their bills.
System shortfalls remain
Families' car payments and mortgages are often too large for local charities to help – at least not without a surge in donations. Without a car, some Durango families must spend a full day getting to and from organizations that can help during rough times. And families in some rural areas don't have any good transportation options.
Families needing help with housing run into waiting lists, sometimes years long, for programs such as Section 8 private-market rental vouchers and income-based housing developments
Child care is another hole local families in need often struggle to fill. Some day care facilities have long waiting lists. Not many are open nights and weekends or holidays. None will watch a sick child, and only a limited number accept public-assistance payments for their services.
Health care is another issue. Multiple state and federal programs offer free or nearly free health-insurance policies to children but not their parents. Only the nation's poorest adults qualify for Medicaid. Social service providers said the community needs a full-service clinic that offers sliding fees to people in a wide income range. Without that, they say, some parents aren't getting needed medical treatment. Others are being treated, but the cost pushes them deeper into poverty.
Help on the way
Everyone interviewed for this series said the La Plata County community has a way of getting things done. And some see that as proof there's hope for helping our neighbors in need.
Efforts to close some cracks in the system are already under way.
For example, a living wage campaign to increase the minimum wage in Durango recently emerged.
Local charities are collaborating, through organizations such as the Coalition of Caring Communities, to share information and resources and minimize duplication of services.
A number of area organizations are working on a project to send food-filled backpacks home each weekend with some schoolchildren who receive free lunches. Qwest, CenturyLink, United Way of Southwest Colorado, Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado, Manna Soup Kitchen and Durango Christian Church are among the collaborators.
Cooking Matters, a program of the national nonprofit organization Share Our Strength, offers free cooking, shopping and nutrition classes teaching families how to stretch their benefits while eating healthier.
United Way of Southwest Colorado has launched an effort to compile and maintain a comprehensive list of local organizations and programs struggling families can turn to for assistance.
But leaders said more ideas, money and volunteers are needed for all of the efforts to succeed. From food banks and soup kitchens to educational programs and gap services, most organizations are struggling to keep shelves stocked and coffers healthy.
But the challenges ahead are surmountable with the support of an educated and motivated community, numerous providers said.
“If there's any city in Colorado that should not have hungry kids in it, it's Durango,” said John Alsdorf, pastor of Durango Christian Church.