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Economy down — assistance up

As the economy continues its downward orientation, community programs helping families in need are on the rise.

The numbers and types of families seeking help due to economic hardships are growing, as well.

For example, Erlinda Gonzales, Department of Human Services director, said her department is seeing families and individuals from the real estate and building industries applying for the various assistance programs offered through DHS.

“We’re seeing more middle to upper-middle class families coming in looking for assistance,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales indicated that the increase in families looking for help is also frustrating for the DHS staff, who want to help as many people as possible, because of the level of indigence required to receive assistance and the low benefits available through the programs.

“I’ve been in this position for 20 years and this is the highest I’ve seen it as far as the number of households that have come in to apply,” Gonzales said.

Some individuals and families that contact DHS are eligible for Temporary To Needy Family (TTNF), also known as “Colorado Works.” Colorado Works status makes the applicant eligible for some assistance money, as well as for Medicaid coverage, but the amounts can be quite low and depend on the need of each family.

Numbers for the Food Assistance Program through DHS, a federally-funded program, have skyrocketed, at one point more than doubling the amount doled out to those in need in 2008.

In September of 2008, local food assistance added up to $43,955. The figure was over twice as much for the same month in 2009, totaling $90,208.

In October 2008, when Gonzales said the numbers began increasing and trends presented themselves, DHS allocated $52,352; in 2009 the figure was $93,170.

The trend continued upward in November of both years, though not as steeply. In November 2008, $52,891 worth of food assistance was dispensed, with $93,263 given out in November 2009. November 2009’s assistance was provided to 324 households.

Gonzales indicated that, while the amount given to individual households has increased, it was not a large factor in the overall rise in output, but, rather, the number of requests has increased.

“For some reason, between September and October, the numbers did pick up,” Gonzales said, speculating, “You can see that’s when the weather starts getting bad, so you’re looking probably at construction and that kind of thing.”

Though already dealing with increases in the number of applications, and therefore work in processing applications, DHS is willing to take on more.

“The federal government really, really wants everyone and anyone that’s eligible for food assistance to come in and apply. That’s their way of helping. There’s no cost to the county other than the manpower it takes to process the applications.”

DHS has also seen the number of households receiving assistance from the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP) on the rise.

LEAP is a federally funded program, administered by the Colorado Department of Human Services, designed to assist with winter heating costs from Nov. 1 to April 30 (the LEAP season).

At the end of the last LEAP season, Gonzales said numbers were up about 33 percent over the previous season.

“Thus far, and, again, we just started in November, we were already up by 30 percent in comparison to last year at the same time,” Gonzales said of the current LEAP season.

Gonzales said 119 households received LEAP assistance in November 2008, as compared to 161 households in November 2009.

The minimum amount of LEAP assistance money for the season per household is $350, with the maximum amount being $900. Normally, the money received is split into two payments during the LEAP season.

The specific amount given to each eligible household is based on the number of people in the household, monthly income, what it costs to heat the home for six months and vulnerability (for example, living in a home or apartment where the family pays heating costs, leaves them at a higher level of vulnerability, as opposed to living in an apartment like those available through Archuleta Housing, where the tenant does not pay utilities).

Applications for the LEAP season are accepted through April 30 and those applying are eligible for full benefits until that date.

In order to more fully help those in need, DHS also works with regional and community groups.

DHS is currently working with Housing Solutions for the Southwest to bring more of a presence into Archuleta County, through a new Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing ( HPRR) program and an expanded Emergency Homeless Prevention Program (EHPP).

According to Tami Miller, program specialist for HSSW, the new program, HPRR, which is a result of stimulus money, helps those already homeless or in danger of becoming homeless and provides assistance for a longer period of time than the existing program.

HPRR initially helps for three months, at which point the case is reviewed. Miller said help could be provided for up to 18 months.

EHPP is a shorter-term program aiming to help those find a place or stay in their current place and help typically lasts one-to-two months and requires those in need to demonstrate the ability to pay rent independently following the help period.

EHPP is currently working to help five Archuleta County families referred to them, Miller and Gonzales said.

“There certainly seems to be an increased need,” Miller said.

“We really wanted to have a presence in our community ... resources are available, but people don’t know about them,” said Gonzales, adding, “There is a need here.”

If all goes well, HSSW will have a weekly presence in Pagosa soon, in order to work with people in need.

DHS also works in conjunction with the Pagosa Outreach Connection to provide more aid.

POC comprises 10 or 11 faith-based organizations and five or six community organizations.

Churches and other entities refer families and individuals to DHS, which processes the applications for POC. Referrals then go before a board representing the various entities involved with POC, at which time the amount of help is determined to cover expenses such as rent and mortgage payments, car repairs, prescription drug costs, and others.

In 2009, POC helped members of the community to the tune of more than $95,000, with the vast majority of the money coming from local sources, according to Don Ford, pastor of the Community United Methodist Church.

Ford said POC provided about $52,000 worth of help in 2008, and had been in the range of $50,000 to $55,000 for the four years prior to 2009.

“They’re awesome. We’re just so fortunate to have that group here,” Gonzales said of the POC.

Individually, local churches offering assistance, mostly with food, have seen numbers on the rise, as well.

Ford said the number of food boxes provided by the Methodist Church this year has about doubled from last year.

The church’s food pantry serves anyone in need of food, without defining criteria or limits. The main sources of food for the church are monetary donations from the congregation and independent food drives held throughout the community that donate food received.

“We are able to do what we do because of the great contributions of this congregation and this town — we’ve not turned anyone away,” Ford said, adding that donations have not decreased.

“The community as a whole reaches out to those in need in a great and wonderful way. That is a God-centered community,” said Ford.

Donations have decreased for the John Paul II and Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Churches food bank, which also help without limiting criteria.

“We’re basically staying above water,” said Dennis Schick, acting chairman of the stewardship committee, which oversees the food bank. Schick added that a successful food drive before Christmas has ensured enough food to last a couple months.

As their donations have decreased, the need has increased. While they don’t keep track of numbers, Schick said they’re handing out at least 15 food boxes a week and have probably seen close to a 30-percent increase in the number of people helped as compared to last year.

To determine eligibility for any of the programs offered through DHS, one needs to make an appointment with an eligibility technician and fill out an application (one application serves for all available programs) or, in more dire cases, an appointment is made with an advocate in order to point those in need towards the best resources for them.

Until logistics are determined for the HSSW programs, people are invited to call (970) 259-1086, Ext. 28 for EHPP or Ext. 30 for HPRR, or to contact DHS at 264-2182.

randi@pagosasun.com