A tattered net
Program for affordable housing strains under the weight of Montezuma County’s homeless and working poor
Sam Green/Cortez Journal
Eddie Green spent his third winter at the Bridge Emergency Shelter after a serious shoulder injury left him unable to work as a mechanic or laborer, as he did for many years.
“I can’t do any of it,” he said.
He was on the waiting list for Montezuma County affordable housing for a year and half. But the Housing Authority’s letter didn’t reach him when his name came up, he said. Now he will go to back to the end of the line, he said.
Come April, he will living in his truck when the shelter closes.
Green is not alone.
The wait time for housing owned or managed by the Housing Authority can be 18 months to two years for one of the 501 units, said Terri Wheeler, the executive director.
There are about 209 applications, which represent singles and families, waiting in the files, she said.
But it is not uncommon for the authorities letters never to reach the recipients.
“If they are truly having to wait two years, oftentimes they have moved,” Wheeler said. If they don’t provide the housing authority a forwarding address, the Housing Authority can’t reach them.
Christina Vega, a former nurse, decided the process wasn’t worth it.
“It was overwhelming – all the paperwork,” she said.
She moved her family to town six months ago from Wyoming to be near her critically ill mother. Health problems left her and her husband unable to work, and they were left trying to support a family of four on $710 a month, she said.
They decided the most economical decision was to buy an RV and park it at Totten Reservoir.
Services for families are lacking
“Homelessness is becoming a real issue in Montezuma County both for singles and families,” Wheeler said.
Across the state, youth homelessness rose by 70 percent from the 2009-10 school year to the 2011-12 school year, according to the state. During the 2011-12, school year there were 12 students in Dolores and Mancos school districts who reported being homeless. There were no reported cases of youth homelessness in the Cortez district.
There is no emergency housing for homeless families or youths in the county. If a homeless family goes to Piñon Project, Family Resource Center for help, the nonprofit will contact churches in town for housing assistance. Some churches will pay for temporary motel housing. Occasionally, Piñon Project staff will know of a rental. A few times a year, Piñon Project staff must drive families to the shelter in Durango because there are no other options, said Kellie Willis, the executive director. The families can also apply for emergency housing through the Housing Authority, but a vacancy must be available to fill that need.
In the county, many of the working poor are living right on the edge of homelessness.
About half the families make less than $50,000 a year, according to the annual Region 9 economic development report.
To reach these families, the Montelores Emergency Assistance Coalition, also known as MEAC, provides one-time assistance to working poor who have trouble balancing income and the expenses. Families submit applications that go before a board that includes representatives from the United Way, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Salvation Army Good Samaritan Center, the county probation department, Axis Health Systems, Bridge Emergency Shelter, the Housing Authority, Renew Inc. and social services.
Each week, 15 to 25 families go to MEAC for assistance. Last fiscal year from July 2012 to June 2013, the board gave $86,000 to 239 families, Willis said. There were 521 requests for assistance.
This assistance goes to expenses such as utility bills, car repairs, and rent deposits.
These payments are designed to stabilize a family in a financial emergency.
Affordable housing hard to expand
But many people who need affordable housing, such as those on social security or disability, have a low chance of being able to move into private sector housing without financial assistance, Wheeler said.
When there is low turnover, it lengthens the wait time.
Building subsidized housing can take two years or longer to complete a market study and be approved for grant funding from multiple sources. Just the preliminary work can cost $100,000 to $150,000.
The last project, Brubaker Place Apartments, was completed two years ago it was 100 percent occupied within 30 days.
Federal budget cuts have also taken a toll. The Department of Housing and Urban Development cut funding three years ago for 30 units within the Housing Choice Voucher Program.
Another solution is to break generational poverty through education which opens the door to greater opporunities.
“You want to break that cycle,” Wheeler said.
But higher income is a key factor that allows tenants to move into private housing, she said.
For those who have criminal records, there are fewer options. The Housing Authority runs background and credit checks on all potential tenants. Management must deny applicates if they have committed serious crimes.
Dale Wiley was denied housing because he went to prison twice for drug charges in Utah. He has been clean for a year and wanted to make a change in his life.
“What’s the point of coming to Colorado to make a new start,” he said.
Wiley and his wife, Millie Wiley, live on disability checks, and she must have oxygen for her asthma. She also lives with epilepsy and sugar diabetes.
Wiley sold his truck and generator to keep them off the street. But now they live in a 1975 motorhome.
Millie remains optimistic.
“I tell my husband, Keep praying – a miracle is around the corner,” she said.
The directors of the Housing Authority and the Piñon Project are attending a training program to learn about providing preventative and supportive housing. This housing would attach services to the housing because sometimes the chronically homeless have trouble maintaining stable lives, Wheeler said.
“Oftentimes, they are not ready for housing, they don’t know how to handle the responsibility of housing,” she said.
The housing authority would also like to build new senior housing in the area, she said.
But none of the preliminary work has been completed.