By Jennifer Dempsey
Homelessness in Chaffee County has increased 400% in the last decade according to Bonnie MacDonald, executive administrator for New Sharing and Caring.
“It used to be that we would get one or two calls a month, now it’s one or two a day,” she said. “We can’t always keep track of these people because they might meet somebody at a bar or something who says, ‘oh, here’s a couch.’ A couple of years ago we ended up with two babies from what we call couch surfing. We hope and pray that doesn’t happen again.”
For the past ten years MacDonald has opened her home to men and women needing a place to stay, many coming out of the county jail.
“Our jail system has been wonderful,” she said. “They really care about these people who are coming out. Most of them don’t have money or family or resources. Last year we lost a man at the Walmart parking lot who froze to death. “
Eight months ago, a transitional facility for men opened on Oak Street in Salida. The Samarat Inn currently houses two men, but could house more with renovations, MacDonald said. At present there is no transitional facility for women.
“I am the womens transitional home,” said MacDonald, who currently has four women staying with her. “They both have jobs and are making productive steps in their lives. This really teaches us not to look down on people who may have made a bad choice in their life but are now making good choices. Now is the time to encourage them.”
MacDonald is spearheading the Chaffee Coalition for Supportive Housing, a non-profit that is seeking $50,000 to acquire a motel that will be renovated into a temporary housing facility. Residents will participate in a 30-day program that will include job interview training and resume writing. Classes will be offered in budgeting, financial management, addiction recovery support groups, GED acquisition, life skills and Bible studies. New Caring and Sharing will provide appropriate work clothing.
“This would be a good place for those looking to donate to a worthy cause,” she said, adding that donations over $500 will receive Enterprise Zone State Tax Credit benefits. For more information call MacDonald at 719 207-0033.
Mental illness and addiction do play a role, but the main cause of homelessness in Chaffee County is job loss and a lack of affordable housing, MacDonald said. According to the Chaffee Housing Trust, house prices have increased 10% annually from 2000 to 2006, while wages only increased 3.6% annually. The average price of a home in Chaffee County is $270,000 while the average annual income is less than $30,000.
“Think how easy it would be to become homeless,” said Tom Price, coordinator for the Stone Soup Cafe, a weekly free public lunch served out of the First Presbyterian Church in Salida. “It’s hard to get a job that will pay anything. It’s the $7 an hour guys that are having a hell of a time and they’re usually the ones with kids. It’s not just the folks that don’t fit in, the women and men who have problems, who are homeless. Homelessness affects everybody.”
“A lot of people are surprised when you tell them there are homeless people here in Chaffee County,” said John Bohner, co-director of the Lighthouse, a non profit organization in Salida that serves free meals Tuesday through Saturday.
“The exact numbers (of homeless), I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a population that’s not visible. I know we have people living in tents and shacks. I know one that lives in a bus and I’m assuming we have some folks sleeping in cars. There’s couch surfing and a lot of people use that term to say ‘homeless.’”
Bohner said the numbers served at the Lighthouse have dropped off since September, “possibly due to the cold spell or they may have family in other places to stay with.”
In the two years he has worked at the Lighthouse, Bohner said, he has seen people utilize the service for a variety of reasons.
“Are they homeless or just low on funds? Do they need the extra meal or someone to talk to? We don’t ask,” he said. “We don’t know what the situation is. I heard somebody say ‘we’re here to serve the needy.’ Well, I say define ‘needy.’”
One thing Bohner said he does know is that “the community here is really giving. We’ve got food banks, soup kitchens and churches that help out whenever they can. I’ve always liked to help people so this was a good way for me to do it. I guess you could call it a calling.”
The Lighthouse accepts food and cash donations year round. For more information call 539-4849. g
Jennifer Dempsey is a freelance writer and director of the Salida Circus.