A growing issue: Lack of affordable housing leading more to homelessness | SkyHiNews.com

A growing issue: Lack of affordable housing leading more to homelessness

Editor’s note: This article is part of the final installment in Sky-Hi News’s three-part housing series that examines the affordable housing issue facing Grand County and its widespread effects.

The Grand County Housing Authority conducted a Grand County Housing Needs Assessment in 2007, officially identifying nine homeless individuals within the county. Today, Helen Sedlar of the Mountain Family Center sees two to three each week.

Exacerbated by rising housing prices, a seasonal economy, lack of transportation and transient population, homelessness is on the rise.

"We've been seeing this grow each year," said Sedlar, president and executive director of Mountain Family Center. "Lots of people camp in their cars or wherever they can, so they come in looking for tents and extra blankets. I wouldn't say we have a huge population, but then again if you started counting all the individuals that are couch surfing that would make that number pop up."

There are several resources in Grand County for homeless individuals or those at risk of losing their housing situation. Grants offered by Mountain Family Center, Grand Angels, the Grand Foundation, The town of Winter Park, the state and others can help individuals with rent, security deposits and utilities.

Part of the issue when defining the breadth of homelessness issues is a difficulty to accurately quantify how many people are without reliable housing. The nine individuals from the 2007 needs assessment is far from an accurate statistic, failing to include dozens who are couch-surfing or camping.

The report estimated that five percent of the respondents to the household survey said they were staying with friends. The survey did not account for campers.

Sedlar said that the Mountain Family Center worked with about 60 homeless households last year, and estimates about 75 for this year. Because of the inaccuracy of homeless measurements, Sedlar uses another statistic, food insecurity rate from Feeding America, as a more accurate measure of local homelessness and working poor conditions.

Food insecurity measures lack of access to enough food, providing a relatively good representation of those who have difficulty affording both food and housing costs.

"I think it paints a better picture of the working poor population in our community," said Sedlar. "Because working poor often have to choose between buying groceries and paying rent."

Grand County has a food insecurity rate of 12.6 percent, or about 1,820 people in the county, according to data from Feeding America. Colorado overall has a 12.2 percent food insecurity rate.

Other issues include seasonal jobs and individuals' lack of reliable transport. Sedlar said often workers will arrive late in the spring, before summer jobs are available. Winter workers can also be left without jobs during seasons where snow shows up late. It is also an issue where an employee finds a reasonable housing situation, but doesn't have reliable transportation to get to their job in a different town.

The transient population also has trouble finding housing.

"The ones who make it here are very transient," said Dan Mayer, patrol lieutenant and public information officer for the Grand County Sheriff's Office. "They don't come with a plan, they just jump off the train and think it's pretty. We have a lot of people who camp out and make a home in the forest service land."

It's common for homeless individuals to camp out in campsites or forest land, though most campsites have limitations for how long visitors can stay. Dispersed camping, or camping off of designated campsites on Forest Service land, is legal for up to 16 days. After that deadline, a person must move at least five miles away.

The Forest Service keeps tabs on campers to ensure they follow restrictions.

"During the summer we definitely do deal with it on a weekly basis," said Meyer. "You'll have somebody camping out for a while in a bus or tent. We go out there and move them along."

There are several resources in Grand County for homeless individuals or those at risk of losing their housing situation. Grants offered by Mountain Family Center, Grand Angels, the Grand Foundation, The town of Winter Park, the state and others can help individuals with rent, security deposits and utilities.

While these programs are essential, and provide a valuable service for the county, the requirements for subsidies often put the working poor in difficult positions. If someone is working 20 hours per week, and is offered a bump to 30, they may have to turn down extra work to ensure they don't negate their subsidies. Pay raises need to be substantial enough to ensure a living wage, while more moderate income increases could actually set back some households, according to Sedlar.

"It's not that they don't want to work, but they have to think about how their families can best survive," said Sedlar. "It's a cycle they are trying to get out of. But it's not going to happen until we have some societal changes across the country with a livable wage and accessible transportation."

By the numbers: Grand County’s ‘working poor,’ homeless population is large

Grand County has a food insecurity rate of 12.6 percent, or about 1,820 people in the county, according to data from Feeding America. Colorado has a 12.2 percent food insecurity rate. Food insecurity measures lack of access to enough food, providing a relatively good representation of those who have difficulty affording both food and housing costs.

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