The poor in El Paso County continue to struggle as more people fell below the poverty line in 2009 for the third straight year, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released Tuesday.

Though the numbers are a year old, agencies working with the poor in El Paso County say their need hasn’t let up thus far this year.

The percent of people living below poverty level in El Paso County grew to an estimated 11.5 percent in 2009, according to the American Community Survey, a census study that collects a wide range of information including income, poverty and health insurance. It is the third straight year-over-year increase in the county’s poverty rate and the highest rate since 2004, when the rate was an estimated 11.9 percent.

“While the poverty numbers may seem a little abstract, we need to realize that they are real people living right here in our community,” said Dave Bamberger, managing director of Summit Economics, an economic consulting firm. “The total represents almost 70,000 Colorado Springs area residents. If they were lined up single file waiting to be fed at the soup kitchen downtown, the line would stretch north up the interstate past the Monument interchange. That’s a lot of hungry mouths to feed.“

As the poverty rate went up, the median household income in the county saw its first year-over-year drop in several years. In 2009, the median household income dropped to an estimated $55,700 — down 5.7 percent from the previous year’s median salary of $59,085. The 2009 median was down $620 from 2006 levels.

Fred Crowley, senior economist for the Southern Colorado Economic Forum, attributed part of the drop in income to the high unemployment rate — in August the rate was 8.9 percent in Colorado Springs. He said people worried about the economy stop spending money, which causes business to go down and thus more layoffs.

“This is the definition of a recession,” he said. “There are hints of evidence that things are turning around, but this will be very slow.”

He said an increase in the number of the jobs in the area and higher retail sales are signs that there might be improvement on the horizon.

Several agencies working with the poor, however, say they have not seen any decrease in need this year. Arturo Serrano, who is in charge of food assistance and family Medicaid for the county, said each month the agencies are seeing an increase.

In August, he said there were 25,294 families on food assistance in El Paso County – up 72 percent from August 2008.

“It’s amazing, every month, even last month, we’ve had a steady flow of people,” he said. “From what I’ve seen, this trend is still going up. It hasn’t leveled off. It hasn’t gone down.”

Rochelle Schlortt, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of Colorado Springs, said her agency hasn’t seen any decrease in need this year. In early 2008, the Marian House was serving about 400 meals a day on weekdays. Now, it averages at least 600, with some days topping out more than 800.

 “There’s still a significant number of people out there who need services, who need help,” she said.

To help meet the demand, the soup kitchen has had to stretch the food out in whatever way it can. Instead of serving chicken breasts, for example, it now serves chicken casseroles so the meat will go further.

“We’re doing what every American family is doing right now,” she said. “We’re trying to make our resources stretch as far as we can.”