Poverty isn't new in La Plata County, but today it has new faces.
They are the faces of people with homes, cars and histories of self-sufficiency. Many of them aren't making it here anymore.
“There are a lot of warning signs right now that we need to be doing some things differently,” said Sarah Comerford, executive director of Manna Soup Kitchen. “I think as a community we should be concerned.”
The economic downturn has devastated families across the country. La Plata County, with its relatively low wages and high housing costs, has an added dimension of hardship.
Every day, a few more local families experience the pain of unemployment, foreclosure and, in the worst cases, homelessness.
Here are some of the numbers:
b Between 2007 and 2009, the number of local families receiving food assistance from the government jumped by 60 percent, documents show. Last year, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, served an average 2,718 people each month in La Plata County and issued $4.3 million in food assistance. County caseworkers accepted 2,363 new applications for food assistance during the first nine months of 2010, and by December, the number of people receiving assistance had grown to 3,375.
b Statewide, nearly 429,000 residents from more than 161,000 households were receiving federal food assistance benefits as of October 2010. Just two months later, in December, the number had grown to more than 441,000 residents, state officials said. That's up from about 371,000 residents in 118,000 households receiving help in October 2009.
b More than 2,700 jobs were lost in the five-county region from 2008 to 2009, according to information recently released by Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado.
b Banks filed foreclosure notices against 297 homeowners in La Plata County last year, according to the La Plata County Treasurer's Office. It's a figure equal to 2009 and double the number of filings in 2008.
The number of homeless families in La Plata County also is rising rapidly, local social service providers say. But no organization in the area maintains official numbers.
Many charities are working to help, but sometimes the best they can do is offer struggling residents a one-way bus ticket to somewhere else. Spokesmen say they're handing out many more of those tickets these days.
“It's ironic that the community is so charitable and stands behind so many good causes, yet extreme poverty still exists here, and not by choice,” said Pastor Justin Ross of Grace Church.
The bottom line, said some residents, officials, educators and providers, is there's growing evidence that public and private programs designed to save local families from financial desperation are riddled with holes.
This, even though the area has a well-documented track record of generosity, with more than 250 nonprofit organizations operating in La Plata County alone.
The problem, at its root, is economic.
A “liveable wage,” or the amount of money a family needs to earn to cover basic living costs such as food, shelter, health care and child care, for a family of four paying full-time child care costs and a $1,400 monthly rent or mortgage in Durango is $73,046 annually, according to a report by Region 9 Economic Development District. If a family's breadwinners are minimum-wage workers, reaching that figure would require 5.1 full-time jobs, the report said.
Single mother Brenda French-Jeffryes found herself unable to meet her three children's basic food and shelter needs even when working multiple jobs.
“You work harder and harder and find you're not getting ahead at all,” she said.
Despite the systemic challenges to getting by here, the families who don't make it often blame themselves and feel inadequate and ashamed when forced to seek assistance, according to people interviewed for this series.
But the news isn't all bad, officials, clergy, residents and social service providers say.
The community is adapting to the new reality and can be highly creative in coming up with ways to help neighbors in need.
In addition to food pantries and the standard social services, local charities have been known to provide hotel and gas vouchers, diapers, auto repairs and even snow tires.
This is the hallmark of a community that seems to “rise to the occasion” when it sees its residents suffering, Comerford and numerous other nonprofit social service providers said.
In this, Ross sees a powerful antidote to the poverty problem.
“We might not be able to solve poverty in the world, but I do believe whole communities can be fed and transformed,” he said. “And I think in this community, in my community, we could make a dent. Maybe we could even solve the problem.”