Demand up for public assistance

If Archuleta County Department of Human Services data sheds light on the state of the local economy, it may indicate things are likely to worsen before they get better.

Across the board, key programs either administered or monitored by human services director Erlinda Gonzalez show incremental, albeit steady increases in either dollars spent or families served.

According to Gonzalez’s most recent report, income maintenance and food assistance through the Colorado Works program jumped from 15 households in February to 22 households in March. Colorado Works dollars for the same period nearly doubled, from $5,785 in February to $10,400 in March.

The report also shows a three-month tracking of dollars spent for food assistance, and the pattern of gradually increasing disbursements continues, with January benefits at $68,262, February at $72,681 and March at $85,535.

Household counts for food assistance during the same period also jumped from 255 in January to 279 in February and 299 in March.

“I determine how we are doing in Archuleta County based on the number of people on public assistance. It’s not the dollars going out, but the number of families being served,” Gonzalez said.

For the month of February, the Employment First caseload was 76 participants — up 22.5 percent from February 2008. Gonzalez added that 42 percent of all Employment First clients from Colorado counties ranked similar to Archuleta County were, in fact, Archuleta County residents.

Gonzalez said unemployment rates are up statewide. In Archuleta County, the number is 9 percent.

In addition to increases in public assistance dollars and families served, local charitable efforts are also seeing an increased demand for assistance.

Don Ford, pastor, Community United Methodist Church, said, “The biggest thing I’ve seen is middle class people coming in seeking help. We see a lot of people that were totally independent before now seeking assistance because their means of livelihood have gone away.”

Ford said it appears construction workers, Realtors and service oriented workers have been the hardest hit.

“It’s tough times for what I call the ‘worker bees’, by that I mean those that live paycheck to paycheck,” Ford said.

Gonzalez said she is searching for funding that would allow workers hardest hit to obtain a GED or training that might land them a job in another field.

“Now is the time to get creative, now is the time to strike,” Gonzalez said. She also echoed Ford.

“The middle class families are falling through the cracks. I find that my staff is feeling helpless because they can’t help these people. It’s really frustrating,” Gonzalez said.

According to Ford, the Loaves and Fishes free lunch program has seen a 42-percent increase in meals served between January and April 2009, with 314 meals served as the high mark for the period.

“That number includes sit-down meals, takeout and meals delivered to the homebound,” Ford said.

james@pagosasun.com