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Soaring Suburban Poverty Catches Communities Unprepared


First Posted: 10/13/2011 5:12 pm Updated: 09/25/2012 3:12 pm


JUST BEYOND DENVER

Jefferson County, where the Blanco family lives, is precisely the sort of place where the newness of poverty has found the community inadequately prepared, with too few programs, to address the problems.

Traditionally middle class, Jeffco -- as it is widely known -- runs from older suburbs on the fringes of Denver, within sight of the city skyline and the flatlands stretching eastward, and out to more rural communities that rub up against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the west.

For decades, Jeffco has attracted people looking to settle outside the city limits. But beneath the surface of a community that is home to subdivisions with names like Hidden Lake and Country Meadows, Jeffco has been subject to the national trend. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of poor people living in the county grew from fewer than 27,000 to nearly 47,000, according to census data. Almost nine percent of the county is now officially poor.

"It's just a sign of the times," says Lynnae Flora, the county's director of community assistance. "People used to be living paycheck to paycheck. Well, they're not anymore, because there isn't any paycheck."

Jeffco has known acute tragedy: This is where the Columbine massacre played out. Now a more gradual disaster is unfolding, gnawing at the fabric of life.

In 2002, about 17 percent of students at the Jefferson County School District, the largest in the state, came from impoverished households and qualified for free and reduced lunches. Nine years later, that percentage has swelled to 30 percent.

Poor children tend to come from less stable homes, necessitating more frequent moves that interrupt the continuity of their education, consequently requiring extra attention to keep pace with wealthier peers. Yet these growing numbers of poor children are now getting less attention by dint of continuing budget troubles.

Over the last three years, the school district's general fund, which pays for teacher salaries, text books and basic operations, has fallen from about $650 million a year to $586 million, according to the superintendent’s office. The loss of funding has prompted the district to lay off nearly 300 teachers.

The district aims for a student-to-teacher ratio of 20 to 1 for grades one through three, but the average now is about 25 to 1, with some classes holding as many as 28.

"The needs of the children are going up, and the funding is going down," says school superintendent Cynthia M. Stevenson. "When I step back and look at the big picture and know that it isn't going to get any easier, then I worry. We do everything we can for our kids, but there's simply no way to continue doing it."

Two years ago, the county's Department of Human Services was fielding fewer than 900 applications per month from households seeking food assistance. This year, more than 1,900 applications a month have been pouring in. Yet, during the last two years, the county agency has reduced staff handling applications for food stamps from about 120 to 105.

Flora says the cuts have been achieved through attrition, enabled by efficiencies in how the county processes applications. But she still wishes she had more people, particularly as the time to process an application for emergency food aid lengthens.

She dispatches two outreach staff to non-profit social service agencies scattered through the county to help people fill out applications for food stamps. But they can only visit sites once or twice a week. As a result, many people needing help must make a trip to the county headquarters, a complex of offices perched at the top of a hill just above the town of Golden. With a commanding view over the parched terrain, the headquarters looks like a fortress. For many people seeking to reach it, it might as well be.

On a recent morning, Jamie Leavitt enters the lobby of the county's division of community services, takes a number, and waits for half an hour among some three dozen people. When her number comes up, she heads to one of four open windows.

Leavitt, 32, is a mother of three young children. She is here because she has been receiving food stamps in the wake of a divorce -- her ex-husband was the sole breadwinner -- and the division has sent her notice requiring that she recertify her eligibility. She has tried to call her caseworker numerous times, she reports, but has only gotten voicemail and an announcement that his mailbox is full. The clerk explains that the call center has been closed, though it is expected to reopen, because it has lost staff.

So Leavitt has come to the county offices. Without a driver's license, getting here from her home in Littleton took nearly two hours via two buses.

JeffCo's government appears eager to tackle contemporary problems in all their complexity. The county's child support division, which previously took an enforcement tack against fathers who fail to pay, has earned plaudits -- and lower rates of non-payment -- for a multipronged approach that helps jobless men train for and find employment. County officials exude sensitivity to the challenges and enjoy productive relationships with a network of local non-profits.

But earnest efforts to tackle serious problems are running headlong into the limits of arithmetic in an era of shrinking budgets.

At the county's workforce office, where jobless people sit quietly in front of computers, scrolling through listings, staff has been cut from 60 to 34 over the past two years. This, while the county's unemployment rate has ticked up from 8.1 percent to 8.6 percent.

"We are at our absolute minimum of staff to meet the needs," says Flora, the director of community assistance. "We simply need more manpower."

"I NEVER EXPECTED ANYTHING LIKE THIS"

On a recent morning, two dozen people line up outside the Action Center, a non-profit social service agency in Lakewood, just before its 11 o'clock opening time: men and women, young and old, many watching after small children.

Much of the extra need for aid falls on the shoulders of non-profit social service groups such as this one. The center operates a 22-bed homeless shelter, a food pantry and myriad assistance programs, from cash grants to pay for utilities and rent, to transportation money that enables people to get to work.

But much like the county, the Action Center is grappling with a spike in demand just as donations have tapered off. A federal grant that last year delivered $133,000 in utility assistance to about 100 families was cut in the spring. A similar program financed by the county has recently been cut in half.

"The front door is busier than ever, but the resources coming in the back door, there's fewer of them," says the center's executive director, Mag Strittmatter.

In a twist of fortune, some of the same people who used to show up at the back door to donate food and clothing are now coming in the front door to ask for some of those goods for themselves.

"We're hearing this over and over again," Strittmatter says. "They used to donate, and they don't know how to do this, and they never thought this would happen to them."

Tammy Pino certainly did not see this coming. The mother of four grown children, she worked for six years as a customer service manager for a trucking company, earning $11 an hour plus health and retirement benefits, enough to rent a modest duplex in North Denver.

"I was doing fine," she says. "I had money to put away."

But when the monthly rent climbed from $650 to $800, she moved to a cheaper place in Jeffco. Early this year, the trucking company went out of business. For two months, she looked for a similar job but came up empty, so she took a cashier's position at King's Grocery, where she earns $9.14 an hour.

The grocery recently cut her hours from 37 a week to 24, leaving her unable to pay her rent. So she moved in with her sister, who is battling uterine cancer. Her two nephews, 11 and 17, occupy a bedroom, while Pino, 46, sleeps on a couch.

Now, she is here, at the Action Center, wearing a pink T-shirt and matching pink flip-flops, sitting opposite a crisis counselor, Anita Daley, and asking for help.

"I've never been like this anytime in my life," she says, breaking down despite stern attempts to maintain composure. "I never expected anything like this to happen."

Her mother was a teacher, she says. He father was a janitor. They always worked. Pino could count on an allowance. At 16, her parents gave her a car. She had her own television, her own stereo system.

"Now, it's like I'm 16 again," she says. "It's hard to ask anybody for help."

She is eager for another job, a full-time position that would enable her to finance her own place, but her search feels increasingly futile.

"My niece graduated from college and even she can't find a job," Pino says. "She's working at McDonald's."

The counselor tells her about an upcoming job fair. She goes to a supply closet and fills a grocery bag with donated items -- travel-size shampoo bottles from motels, a roll of toilet paper, toothpaste. What else does Pino need?

"I need to go to the dentist," she says, complaining of persistent pain. "I've been trying to hold on."

She gets no insurance at work, she says, adding that this did not stop her employer from recently demanding a doctor's note to excuse two days of absence when she had the flu.

"I said, 'Unless you're going to pay for me to go see a doctor, I'm not going to pay just to find out that I have the flu,'" she recalls, quivering with anger.

The counselor tells her about a free walk-in medical clinic and hands her the paperwork for food stamps. She fills out a slip of paper entitling Pino to take home a box of donated food.

She offers some pots and pans, which Pino accepts with a frown. Her own kitchen goods are in a rented storage locker, along with most of the objects she has accumulated in her lifetime -- clothing, furniture, photos of her children.

"It's just depressing for me to go out there and open up those boxes," she says, referring to her belongings.

She goes back out to the lobby and waits for her name to be called for the food. When the box comes, it holds packs of instant ramen noodles and cans of soup, green beans and peaches. Most of these items have been donated by local households and businesses. A plastic tray of dinner rolls bears a sticker telling Pino who supplied it: King's Grocery.

Her employer does not pay her enough to feed herself the way she has for decades -- by working -- so her sustenance must now be seasoned with charity. And the charity comes from the same place where she rings up groceries destined for other people's kitchens -- an activity that fails to equip her adequately to stock her own.

"There's people who need help more than I do," Pino says, her lips trembling. "I thank God that I have family, and I don't have to go to a shelter. But I'm just trying to get back on my feet and it's so hard."


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