Durango mothers Katie Gould and Alicia Thompson know firsthand the pitfalls to homelessness.
It is a missed paycheck, a late rent payment, an arrest for drug use or an unexpected episode of domestic violence.
As easy as that, families can find themselves on the street, living in cars, staying at a motel or living with family, friends or in a homeless shelter.
The fall into homelessness is particularly difficult for single parents like Gould and Thompson. Scraping together enough cash to pay for food, day care and other expenses can be daunting. Sometimes, the only solution is to part ways – allow children to live with grandparents or watch helplessly as child protective services revokes custody.
Transitional housing programs such as the one offered by Housing Solutions for the Southwest help families find homes and puts them on a path to independent home living. To qualify, families must be homeless and have children. It is a two-year program that offers significant financial assistance for housing. Participants typically pay 30 percent of their income to housing. The program, in its 15th year in Durango, helps 10 to 15 families per year.
According to data released in 2014, 13 percent of children living in La Plata County are in poverty, just below the state average of 16 percent.
“If I had another 15 slots, I could fill them tomorrow,” said program manager Lora Sholes. “Families are the unseen homeless people. You see a lot of single guys and girls on the streets. The families tend to bounce pretty frequently between homes that are unsafe.”
Families in the transitional housing program must set goals, meet with counselors and attend a life-skills class. They are connected with other resources that provide assistance in the form of food stamps, affordable housing, day care and scholarships. The program has funds available to pay for unforeseen eventualities, for example, a car repair that is crucial for a parent to commute to work or school.
Gould and Thompson are similar in that they are single parents who found themselves homeless, but their stories are different.
Gould, 26, was supporting herself, her husband and three children in February 2015 when they were evicted from an apartment. Gould said her husband invited an alcoholic friend to stay at the complex, which upset the landlord. She was paying $900 per month for a two-bedroom unit in Durango.
After being evicted, Gould’s children stayed with her mother, but she had to live in a car or stay with friends. “I helped them do bedtime stuff, and then I would be back to get them ready in the morning,” Gould said. She and her husband separated.
She was accepted into the transitional housing program, which pays for a three-bedroom apartment at Valle de Merced, an affordable-housing complex in Durango. It also has connected her with resources that help financially with day care and food expenses. Her goal is to become a nurse, something program organizers recognized as being possible for Gould to achieve and ultimately beneficial for becoming self-sufficient.
She is enrolled full time at Southwest Colorado Community College and is working toward a nursing certification. She has 4.0 grade-point average.
None of it would be possible without the transitional housing program, she said.
“It definitely lets me know that I’m going to have a roof over my head,” Gould said. “It allowed me to go back to school to further my education to better my family and break that homeless cycle of not having enough money to provide for my family.”
Unlike Gould, Thompson blames herself for her plunge into homelessness.
Thompson was living in Arizona in June 2014 when her husband went to prison, which left her a single parent. She was caught using drugs the next month and was sent to jail. Her 2-year-old son was put in foster care.
“I definitely made poor choices prior to being homeless,” she admits.
Thompson was released after a short stint in jail and returned to Durango, where she lived before going to Arizona. But to regain custody of her son, she needed to have a place to call home.
She contacted Housing Solutions for the Southwest and was accepted to the transitional living program. She lived in her car until Nov. 1, 2014, when the program was able to find an apartment that met affordable standards.
She got her son back the next week.
“It’s super hard to fight to get your child back when you don’t have anywhere to take him,” she said.
For the last year and a half, Thompson has worked full time as a driver for Kangaroo Express. She makes enough money that she is experiencing the “cliff effect,” the point where she no longer qualifies for financial support programs for day care ($800 per month) and food stamps ($300 per month), among others. Soon, she won’t qualify for housing assistance for the two-bedroom apartment she rents in Three Springs.
But she is becoming financially self-sufficient. She has been sober for almost two years and is looking into the possibility of home ownership through Habitat for Humanity’s affordable housing program.
“I do believe the community here is a lot more accepting and willing to help than places I’ve been before,” she said. “I’m very appreciative.”
Some may wonder why these women with children don’t move to a city with a lower cost of living than Durango, which had a median home price of $425,000 in 2015. That is short-sighted, Sholes said.
“These folks are assets to our community,” she said. “Their kids will do well now because of this program. We need to keep our workforce diverse, we need to keep our economy diverse. We can’t be a one-income economy. It doesn’t work that way.”
Housing Solutions for the Southwest has a photography exhibit on display until March 31 at Open Shutter Gallery, 735 Main Ave., featuring local families that have struggled with homelessness.