Local requests for assistance rise as national economy continues slump

Families faced with financial crisis may find it difficult to secure temporary assistance as local relief agencies become more and more stressed by a combination of diminishing resources and increasing demand.

Locally, families in crisis are served by the Pagosa Outreach Connection (POC), a conglomeration composed of faith-based organizations (usually churches), community-based organizations (businesses or secular organizations) and the Archuleta County Department of Human Services. Together, the various organizations pool resources for the POC since, “Together we can accomplish a lot more than we can do individually,” in the words of Pastor Don Ford, representing the Pagosa Springs United Methodist Church, one of the POC participants.

“Our focus is food, shelter, and clothing,” Ford said, adding, “All POC organizations can sustain the program with funds, at the moment.”

Ford did say that the POC has seen a dramatic increase in applications over the past few months. Although Ford said, “Every application we receive is reviewed with no changes as far as how we decide to withhold or not withhold funds,” he did say that the POC has limited amounts and distribution for gas vouchers or payments for prescription medications, due largely to the stress of increased applications.

Barbara Hendricks, family advocate at the Archuleta County Department of Human Services, agrees with Ford’s assessment of the situation. She added, “We’ve seen an increase in middle-class applications due to a lot of homes that have gone into foreclosure in Archuleta County.”

“We’re seeing a new trend, families that have never walked through our doors before,” Hendricks said, adding that, “It is particularly hard on middle-class families because they often don’t meet federal income guidelines for assistance.”

“They fall through the cracks because they have assets and don’t really qualify for food stamps or other state or federal assistance,” she said. “Just the emotional stigma of asking is tough.”

Ford, however, presented a different perspective on the situation. “One of the things we’re finding,” he said, “is there are people leaving the community who can afford to leave. People who are still here can’t afford to relocate, rent a U-Haul, can’t afford to have a place to go or have something set up elsewhere.”

Hendricks reports that the POC gave out $40,298 in 2007 and that numbers, released yesterday, indicate that the POC gave out a total of $51,345 in 2008. “We’ve seen a lot of families this year,” she said, “Definitely a significant increase from last year.”

Ford expressed concerns for the coming months and the strain it will put on POC resources. “We anticipate the numbers will only increase as we get into the first quarter of this year.”

Ford’s apprehension is reflected by the numbers released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which showed the national unemployment rate jumping to 7.2 percent in December, with a loss of 524,000 jobs. Over the last 4 months, 1.9 million U.S. workers lost their jobs pushing the number of unemployed Americans to more than 11 million.

For all of 2008, 2.6 million jobs were lost, the largest slump since 1946 when 2.75 million jobs were lost.

Another troubling BLS statistic released Friday is the so-called U-6 numbers, which adds temporary workers and part time workers into the total number. Those numbers jumped from 12.2 percent in November to 13.5 in December, a rise of 1.3 percent — almost 21 million American workers total, and an increase of 3.4 million workers over the past 12 months.

With a majority of economists not seeing a national economic turnaround until early 2010, the situation locally (as it has closely mirrored national trends), will most likely show no improvement in the near future. Consequently, the POC and other local relief organizations could possibly find themselves stretched beyond limits — with needy families unable to meet their most basic needs.

When asked what could be done to mitigate a problem that is only bound to get worse, Ford was laconic: “Contribute to the POC.”

Pagosa area residents interested in contributing food, clothing, or money to the POC should contact Barbara Hendricks at 264-218