VALLEY — The effects of homelessness and poverty can be felt all across the San Luis Valley. Homeless Outreach and Prevention Education (HOPE) Week is an annual La Puente community event meant to open up the dialogue around these issues in the community. This week is meant to share those experiences, as well as educate the community on the work being done to keep hope alive for those who need it most.
Many appreciate this Valley for its natural beauty, while others know and love this place because it is home and their roots run deep here. There are many things unique about this Valley, and one of them is the extreme amount of generational poverty that exists here. More than half of the counties in the San Luis Valley qualify as persistent poverty counties, meaning they have had poverty rates above 20 percent for the last 30 years. Thirty-eight percent of families get by on less than $25,000/year. This leaves the Valley with a population that is constantly living on the brink of crisis. Families often wonder how they are going to spread their dollar to cover their family’s needs. One downfall like a job loss, death, or illness can mean the difference between self-sufficiency and homelessness.
La Puente first opened its doors in the early eighties sheltering between 850 and 1,100 individuals and family members every year. During the crazy, overloaded years at La Puente, the staff and volunteers were scrambling to accommodate the burgeoning crowd of shelter guests. They asked, “How can this tide of homelessness be stemmed? Do we just sleep more people on the floor?” The answer came from the shelter guests themselves.
Once a week, the residents would convene to discuss the living dynamic, which included the rules and chore lists necessary for the coordination of a healthy, functioning shelter. During these gatherings, staff began to understand a common theme of how preventable most of their stays were: “If only I could have paid up my rent after my hospitalization,” or, “My landlord evicted me because I couldn’t pay my heating bill,” or “I was between jobs, and didn’t have any savings.”
This understanding gave rise to La Puente’s Outreach and Prevention Services. In 1994, Del Norte resident Vernice Romero opened up the first Outreach Office, which she operated out of a donated Toyota pickup. Vernice traveled throughout the Valley and provided face-to-face guidance and referral networking to dozens of families on the edge. When a few hundred dollars for rent or utility assistance was available, Vernice would assist the family who could most benefit from short-term assistance. Her efforts tipped the scales in favor of dozens of households, providing them stability to ride out their crisis and keep them in their homes.
Since then, La Puente has continued to keep families living in their homes. After developing Outreach Services, shelter intakes decreased by 30-40 percent from pre-prevention levels. In 2016, Outreach aided 1,796 unduplicated families and 4,018 unduplicated individuals with rent, utility bills, and emergency provisions such as firewood, medical assistance, and crisis intervention.
With the extreme amount of need in this Valley, prevention efforts like La Puente’s Outreach Services are critical to creating a social safety net. When life is falling apart, La Puente is proud to be the place to help keep life afloat. La Puente partners with many other programs across the Valley to ensure we take care of one another when life gets hard. These efforts will be highlighted throughout this week. To learn more visit www.lapuente.net/news or call 719.587.349