The percentage of families living below poverty in El Paso County jumped from 5.9 percent in 2006 to 8.2 percent in 2009, according to the American Community Survey. (Under 2010 guidelines, a family of four with an annual income of $22,050 is right at poverty level.)
No doubt, the struggling economy is partly to blame, but families fall into poverty for many reasons. A stay-at-home mother is left struggling after her husband leaves her, or she flees from an abusive relationship with just the clothes on her back and no job skills. A dad with a job in another state gives it up to move closer to his kids so he can get them away from a mentally ill mother.
Here are some of the stories we heard from families living at the Aztec Motel, under the auspices of Homeward Pikes Peak. Some people did not want to give their last names because of the sensitive nature of their situation:
Amanda Shafer, 22
Domestic issues are at the heart of Shafer’s financial problems. Her husband left her in April, and another man she became involved with during the summer beat her badly enough to send her to the hospital. Because of the beating, she says, she couldn’t work, and she lost her $600-a-week job as a home health care worker. The upshot: She couldn’t make her rent, and she and her 2-year-old daughter, Brianna, lived in her car for three weeks. She’s interviewed for jobs at two nursing homes, and is trying to get help through the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program. “We can only hope for the best,” she says.
Stephanie, 23, and Steve, 26
She’s going to school to become a dental assistant; he gets Social Security and plans to get his commercial driver’s license once she finds a job. They’ve been getting about $900 a month — enough to pay their $500 a month rent, cover some other expenses and provide for their 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. It was a struggle, but they were keeping a roof over their heads.
And then her car died.
“I made a choice to buy a car and not pay rent,” says Stephanie. “I had to, with kids. How am I supposed to get to school or get the kids to the doctor? I can’t depend on others to get me there.”
So the family was evicted from their apartment, and ended up at the Aztec in mid-August.
“I’d like to stay here until I get a job,” says Stephanie, whose long-range goals include dental school. “It’s just that now, financially, we don’t have enough money.”
Henri and Jay, ages unavailable
Henri had an internship with Jefferson County’s social services agency, but when the money ran out, so did her employment. Her husband, a house painter, has been unable to find work.
“It’s not pretty. Most everybody’s doing their own work now,” Jay says.
A few months ago, the couple moved to Colorado Springs because Henri had some job possibilities, but they didn’t come through. With insufficient income to make rent, the couple and their 4-year-old son, Angelo, were evicted, and they moved into the Aztec on Monday.
Jay is willing to work for less money than he has charged in the past, but the work isn’t there, he says. And Henri says she’s doing everything she can to land a job, including networking and digging through websites.
“There are jobs out there; you’re just competing with a lot of people,” she says. “But you got to have faith, you’ve got to believe it’s going to work out. You have to put in the work to find the work.”
She once worked as an accounts payable clerk, and she’d like to find a job in the business sector. But she’ll take a fast food or retail position, and would even hold onto those jobs if she found one more suitable to her skills, because they would be a “safety net” for her, she says.
For now, the Aztec will be home, but the couple hopes to find a more permanent place where Angelo can be in a stable environment.
“All the moving around makes it hard on him,” Jay says.
Brandy Thomas, 34
Some would probably say Thomas dug her own hole into poverty, and she wouldn’t argue.
“Meth pretty much destroyed my life,” says Thomas as she nurses her 4-week-old daughter, Lilliana Sunshine.
She quit meth three years ago, but once she got clean, she says, “I couldn’t find a job to save my soul,” although she had worked most of her life, including a five-year stint at MCI.
She served a jail term from December to March for being a habitual traffic offender, and went to stay at a sober living facility after getting out. But she says she was kicked out because she didn’t have a job, and she ended up at the Aztec.
Now, she’s looking to the future. She has a paid internship through the Women’s Resource Agency, and she’s trying to save money.
“I want to have housing, become stable, get professional skills,” she says.