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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


HOMELESSNESS TOUCHES SCHOOLS

At the headquarters of the Jefferson County School District in Golden, the marble lobby and two-story atrium attest to the level of comfort that has traditionally framed life here. Upstairs, three increasingly busy staff members in cubicles underscore how times have changed.

The three staff members serve as the school system's homeless liaisons. They verify reports that a student is homeless, which can be defined as living in a motel, at a shelter or bunking with friends or relatives on a temporary basis. They offer what aid they can muster.

A decade ago, the district verified that 59 students were homeless. In the last academic year, the number came in at 2,800. This year, only two months into a new academic term, the district has already found nearly 2,000 homeless students.

"We have homelessness everywhere," says homeless liaison Sheree Conyers. "We literally get e-mails and phone calls all day long. Younger people are moving back in with their parents, doubling up. Parents are taking in their kids and their kids' kids because there is nowhere else for them to go."

At Parr Elementary School, a tidy facility in a traditionally middle class neighborhood in the north of the county, where leafy streets are lined with brick homes on well-tended lawns, 28 percent of the student body was homeless at some point during the year.

On a recent afternoon, homeless liaison Jessica Hansen is preparing to visit a family that has just been evicted from their rented home and has moved into a motel just off Interstate 70. They have two children: a girl in the seventh grade, and a boy in the eighth.

Hansen is bringing toiletries, books and microwaveable food. She prepares bus passes for the two children, because the motel that has become their temporary shelter is far beyond walking distance from their school. Getting there now entails a nearly hour-long ride on two buses.

She has in hand a list of available shelters, reflecting the reality that this will likely be the next stop for this family. They are moving into a motel that runs $34 per night, telling themselves they will save up and move back into their rental eventually. But the father works at McDonald's. The mother draws a small disability check. They will probably exhaust their resources in a matter of weeks, Hansen says, and then be forced to start dialing the shelters on the list in pursuit of available space.

Among the 52 listings for shelter beds and transitional housing, only eight are in Jeffco, and only one is open to all types of people, with the others restricted to victims of domestic violence, youths or families. The vast majority are within the Denver city limit, a move that would make the children's bus commute even longer.

The Family Tree, a non-profit social service group, operates a shelter in JeffCo for homeless and runaway youths, but not for families. Still, the options are so limited and the needs so great that, in some families, kids are leaving their parents behind.

"We're getting kids coming into the shelter where the entire family is homeless," says Scott Shields, the group's chief executive officer. "They are so desperate that they are willing to split the family up."

For years, Shields and colleagues at other social service agencies have talked about opening a new youth shelter in Jeffco but have not pursued plans in the face of opposition from the local zoning board.

The school district derives most of its funding for homeless programs via federal grants delivered to the state. But this year, even as the need has exploded, the budget was cut from $40,000 to $36,000.

Conyers, the coordinator, has managed to expand services by aggressively seeking donations. She recently secured a $10,000 check from a local church, using the money to stock a bank account for special emergencies. She tapped that money for a new mattress for a child who was staying with another family and sleeping on the floor. She used those funds to pay for a storage unit for a family in transitional housing, so they would not lose their belongings.

She procures clearance items from local retailers -- blankets, backpacks, toiletry items and food -- storing her cache in a temporary classroom at an elementary school, alongside music stands arrayed for orchestra practice.

All of this feels tenuous, she laments.

"We're really only as strong as our collaborators," Conyers says. "We'll continue to hang on by a thread."

EVERYONE IS HURTING

For decades, Selena Blanco and her family were doing far better than hanging on. They were representative of the burgeoning opportunities and rising living standards that characterized this swiftly growing metropolitan area.

Growing up, her mother worked as an administrator for a Denver construction company. Her father worked in the technology department at AT&T. He drove a prized Corvette.

When Blanco was five, her parents moved the family out of Denver to Edgewater, an established suburb just over the city line, in search of better schools. The unassuming A-frame house had an ample yard. Blanco walked to school, went to neighborhood Halloween parties, and studied at a local library. Her family took vacations to Disneyland.

When Blanco got married and started her own family, she felt confident that the future would follow this familiar trajectory. But two years ago she was laid off from her job as an administrator at a health care provider.

She and her husband could no longer afford the rent on their two-bedroom townhouse, so her father offered them, rent-free, the house in which she had grown up. He and Blanco's mother had split years earlier, he was living elsewhere, and the house was vacant.

In January, her husband lost his job in customer service at Dish Network when the satellite television provider shuttered a local call center and shifted operations to Mexico. She drove to the county seat in Golden to apply for public assistance. She felt a deep sense of shame, combined with a deeper feeling of resignation: She had a family to feed.

Her case officer explained that she did not qualify for help. Her husband's income was imputed to her, and that income bumped them over the limit for cash assistance and food stamps. The bureaucracy seemed to be working against families.

"If you're a single parent, you can get so much help," she says. "But if you're a family, they don't help you. If I divorced my husband, I would qualify for everything immediately."

Her husband has searched aggressively for work, looking for jobs that seem incommensurate with his experience, which includes a college degree. "He has applied to Walmart and Target, the simplest places to get a job," she says. "And they don't even call him back."

Without money for childcare, she can no longer work, she says, further limiting their income.

She did qualify for Headstart, and she values the experiences her youngest child is having there, but that is only three hours a day, four days a week -- not a window that any employer can use.

From the curb, her home looks like many on her block. A trampoline sits out back. An American flag flaps in the breeze above their front stoop.

But when Blanco contemplates her life, her family's future feels deeply unsettled. They are behind on their cable bills and on their Internet service. They have grown used to picking up the phone to hear menacing words from bill collectors.

Blanco and her husband describe themselves as Christians. "We stay positive," she says. "We have faith."

Yet the breakdown in their lives is testing that faith.

"I put on such a good face," she says. "People have no idea how we're hurting. In all actual reality, there's times when I'm like, 'How are we going to get through this?'"

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