Archuleta County residents are feeling the heat from the national economic meltdown, and according to a county department of human services report, times are likely to get worse before they get better.
Erlinda Gonzalez, director of Archuleta County’s Department of Human Services, said the number of families needing food assistance has steadily increased during the past three months, with 210 households served in November, 241 in December and 255 in January.
Gonzalez said by monitoring the number of families receiving food assistance, she is able to gauge the health of the local economy.
“When I start seeing the food assistance program numbers going up, I can tell the economy is in bad shape. It’s been a long time, maybe three, four or five years since I’ve seen these kinds of numbers,” Gonzalez said.
Beyond simple increases in families seeking assistance through the food program, Gonzalez said she is also seeing increases in requests from “zero income” families.
“Zero income families are families that don’t have any income coming into the household. We are seeing more families coming in with zero income — that’s unusual,” Gonzalez said.
In addition, Gonzalez said, “Middle class families and our senior population are the ones that are falling through the cracks.”
In those cases, Gonzalez said middle class or senior families’ monthly incomes typically exceed limits established for eligibility for state programs. In those cases, Gonzalez said the Pagosa Outreach Connection (POC) can provide food, and rent or mortgage assistance.
“The POC is seeing more families asking for help with mortgage and rent payments,” Gonzalez said. Although she added that area churches are having difficulty getting people to donate for the food boxes.
“All counties are experiencing the same type of increases, i.e. increases in food assistance, LEAP (Low Energy Assistance Program), families who have lost their jobs or who have reduced work hours. In some counties, staff is having difficulty keeping up with processing cases; there are many individuals and families falling through the cracks because human services cannot help them. Locally, appointments are set out as far as the end of March,” Gonzalez said.
Meanwhile, with her staff processing ever more cases, Gonzalez said Gov. Bill Ritter is considering furloughs for state employees, and human services departments across the state may soon face deeper budget and program cuts.