The other Durango

Survey exposes housing hardships here and in wider region

Leslie Stephenson, 38, is out of work after suffering a back injury while painting. Short of money, Stephenson and his fiancee, Heather Gibson, are living with family. He cited his 3-month-old son as motivation for getting back on his feet. “For (Elijah), I’ll do anything,” he said. “I won’t be a deadbeat father. That isn’t crossing my mind.” Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Leslie Stephenson, 38, is out of work after suffering a back injury while painting. Short of money, Stephenson and his fiancee, Heather Gibson, are living with family. He cited his 3-month-old son as motivation for getting back on his feet. “For (Elijah), I’ll do anything,” he said. “I won’t be a deadbeat father. That isn’t crossing my mind.”

Advocates called this week’s initiative to measure the scope of housing insecurity in Southwest Colorado “a resounding success,” while emphasizing it was the first step of a long-term process to bring more affordable and transitional lodging to the area.

“It’s been a very long week … and a very good week,” said Sara Wakefield, director of Manna Soup Kitchen.

Ninety volunteers spent three days scoping parks, streets and social service “touchpoints” around La Plata and surrounding counties to interview individuals and families who identified as homeless or “on the edge.” The latter category includes those staying at shelters, week-to-week in motel rooms or doubling up with a friend or relative.

The volunteers administered 330 surveys and collected responses into a database.

People surveyed expressed frustration with the tepid job market. They cited long-term unemployment as the biggest impediment to stable housing.

“I have my GED, I have electrician skills. I’ll do any kind of labor. I’m not addicted to anything: no alcohol, no drugs,” said Tim Ragan, 22, who sleeps in the woods and carries his belongings everywhere he goes for fear they’ll be stolen. “It’s just a terrible freaking economy.”

Ragan was quick to note his gratitude for places like Manna and the people who volunteer there.

“They’re godsends. I’ve never seen a place remotely like it,” he said. “It’s nice to have someone that cares.”

Kimberly Mariano is a single mother trying to support three children. She is living at the Community Shelter for now, but with the shelter’s three-week occupancy limit, she acknowledges she’ll have to move on unless she finds work soon.

“I’m not picky. I’ve worked as a cashier, a hostess, a hotel maid,” she said.

“I’m bummed about the idea of Kurra switching schools all the time,” she said, referring to her 5-year-old daughter.

The aggregate statistics from the surveys will be used to analyze trends and allocate resources where they are most needed.

Concrete numbers are key to mustering financial support.

“(To raise money) you have to quantify the need. We can’t just count on anecdotal stories,” said Gary Sanford, adviser to Gov. John Hickenlooper on homeless initiatives.

The campaign was part of Colorado Counts, a statewide program out of Hickenlooper’s office being used to form Colorado’s first comprehensive homelessness plan, Pathways Home.

The survey is called the Vulnerability Index. Conceived by New York-based nonprofit Community Solutions, the index asks intimate questions about mental and physical health conditions, involvement with the prison and foster systems, substance abuse, domestic violence, and length of time spent in unstable housing – be it shelters, friends’ couches or in a makeshift tent.

Crunching the numbers

At a community debriefing hosted by the soup kitchen Friday, preliminary results were presented by Katie Symons, an independent consultant who has worked on previous index drives in Los Angeles, Denver and Fort Collins.

The largest demographic was single men, who accounted for almost half of all surveyed.

Nearly a quarter of participants reported being the victim of a violent attack since becoming homeless.

One startling statistic revealed the correlation between chronic illness and homelessness. Those with kidney problems, liver cirrhosis, HIV/AIDS and other conditions took an average of 8.23 years to find stable housing, compared with 2.7 years for healthy people.

Of the 38 war veterans interviewed, 29 reported having an honorable discharge from the military, meaning they should be eligible for Veterans Affairs benefits such as disability compensation, free or low-cost medical care and housing vouchers.

Toward the end of the presentation, organizers made three significant announcements.

Jennifer Lopez, executive director of the Regional Housing Alliance, said the city of Durango had provided a 0.84-acre parcel near the soup kitchen to build 12-15 supportive housing units next year. The lease agreement will last 20 years.

Sara Wakefield said Manna’s renewed lease included plans for an expansion of facilities. She wants to use the space for a second building containing a culinary school, monthly medical clinic and classrooms for skills training.

Finally, Julie Levy, a BP spokeswoman, said the company was pledging a $25,000 donation to the “resource bucket,” a fund to pay for basic, immediate needs such as bus passes and motel vouchers.

BP and Vectra Bank have been key financial sponsors of Colorado Counts.

“I’m glad Vectra could be involved in such a worthwhile effort,” said Colorado market president Travis Craig.

Volunteers come up big

Katie Symons had high praise for community members who gave up their time to help.

“Normally, we have some no-shows. But this week everybody who signed up showed up,” she said. “This isn’t a paid gig. People were just committed to following through.”

Getting a glimpse into life on the edge left a lasting impression with volunteers such as Elizabeth Collins, a social studies teacher at Durango High School.

“We gave out $5 gift cards to Walmart for taking part. At first I thought that (amount) was chintzy,” she said. “But all the people were unbelievably appreciative. It was humbling how big a difference $5 makes.”

Lopez said surveying will continue next week in Cortez and until Oct. 31 around the region to augment the data collected this week. She specifically wants to work with the Family Resource Center, Women’s Resource Center, Housing Solutions for the Southwest, and Durango School District 9-R to engage families with kids.

“By (November) we’ll have a full spectrum to work with,” she said.

lgroskopf@durangoherald.com

Sara Wakefield, director of Manna Soup Kitchen, helps Dustin Collins fill out a survey. “We see (the vulnerable people) every day. We’re in the trenches of social work,” Wakefield said. She believes the survey results will help facilitate communication among social workers and politicians, donors and the community at large. Enlarge photo

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

Sara Wakefield, director of Manna Soup Kitchen, helps Dustin Collins fill out a survey. “We see (the vulnerable people) every day. We’re in the trenches of social work,” Wakefield said. She believes the survey results will help facilitate communication among social workers and politicians, donors and the community at large.

Brady Brown, 16, right, asks questions to Martin Thompson, 16, at the Durango Skate Park. Brown came from Montrose to help interview at-risk youths. Many teens “couch surf” between friends’ homes in the absence of stable housing. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Brady Brown, 16, right, asks questions to Martin Thompson, 16, at the Durango Skate Park. Brown came from Montrose to help interview at-risk youths. Many teens “couch surf” between friends’ homes in the absence of stable housing.

Dustin Collins, 30, poses for a photo that will be added to his survey profile. Sara Wakefield, right, set aside time from her daily responsibilities as director of Manna Soup Kitchen to help administer surveys. Collins lives in a campsite near town. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Dustin Collins, 30, poses for a photo that will be added to his survey profile. Sara Wakefield, right, set aside time from her daily responsibilities as director of Manna Soup Kitchen to help administer surveys. Collins lives in a campsite near town.