Steamboat Springs Editor's note: This story has been corrected from its original version. The expedited food assistance application is available only for certainly qualifying individuals. An online application process has not yet been rolled out by the state.
Shock is the word that ties together all of Paige Roberts’ conversations with families seeking help putting food on their table.
The Routt County residents who Roberts speaks with every week at the Department of Human Services office in downtown Steamboat Springs never imagined they would find themselves anxiously waiting for a piece of plastic to help them obtain food, but continued unemployment in Routt County is making more of these meetings a reality.
“It’s a life-changing event for the person who comes to see me who used to make $200,000 as a real estate agent, and now they’re making minimum wage,” said Roberts, an eligibility technician for Routt County Department of Human Services. “It’s a real shock for them to be seeking help to pay for food.”
The department, which serves hundreds of local families every month, is projecting to allocate more than $1 million in food assistance this year alone. Roberts said unemployed construction workers and employees who are not receiving enough hours at their jobs to make ends meet account for the estimated 30 percent increase in the cases she has handled this year. In addition to an increase in the number of food assistance cases, Roberts said the department also is seeing an increase in the need for services such as low-income energy assistance and Medicaid.
“We have more first-time applicants compared to last year because unemployment (benefits are) running out for a lot of individuals,” Roberts said. “When someone is living off of unemployment for a year and a half, and then that ends and they make nothing, they don’t know what to do.”
Routt County Department of Human Services Director Vickie Clark said the increase in funding for the food assistance program is unprecedented.
“We’re having to pay out more money for food assistance because more and more people are making very little money or no money at all,” Clark said. “The (Steamboat Ski Area) didn’t hire as much, and the people that are working are working less.”
Eligibility for the food assistance program is based on a household or individual’s monthly income and employment status. The Routt County department distributed $549,138 to local households from January to June and is on track to surpass the $629,297 spent on food assistance in the county in 2009. In 2008, Routt County spent $279,971 on food assistance.
“Since 2008, our entire world has changed,” Clark said. “Every time we think we’re slowing down, we get hit again.”
The food assistance program run by the Department of Human Services is federally funded, and the county is reimbursed for the full amount spent on the program. Clark said that not only does the program benefit individuals who are struggling to find a source of food, but it also injects money into the local economy.
Susan Gruber, director of Summit County’s Department of Human Services, also is experiencing an increase in the amount of funding needed to provide food assistance. Gruber said the counties in Colorado that rely heavily on the resort and skiing industries have seen the highest increase in food support funding in the state because of their high levels of unemployment.
“We’ve also seen a huge increase in the number of food assistance cases in the last two years,” Gruber said. “Our caseloads are so high that we don’t take walk-ins anymore. We’re also seeing more people like Realtors and self-employed individuals who are not our typical clients applying for benefits.”
Clark said the state is taking steps to make the application process for food assistance programs more timely and efficient by placing the application online.
Folks who have a gross monthly income of less than $150 or who have monthly living expenses that exceed their gross monthly income can take advantage of an expedited application process that takes seven to 10 days. Normal applications can take 30 calendar days. For more information, visit www.cdhs.state.co.us/ or call the department at 970-879-1540.
“It’s been a rough couple of months,” Clark said. “The good news is a lot of benefits are going out to people in our county.”