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|April 2--8, 2009
Back to Letters
Reading with a full stomach
by Pamela White
Here in Boulder County, we hide poverty well. It sits behind fences in mobile home parks, pocketed away in Section 8 housing projects, diluted among more affluent neighborhoods that we pass each day in our cars and on our bikes. But poverty in Boulder County is a real problem — one that seems to be growing worse.
About 17 percent of county residents live below the federal poverty line, which, for a family of four, is about $20,000. Some are nontraditional students who are trying to raise kids and get an education. Some are single working-class mothers. And, yes, some are undocumented immigrants.
With the jobless rate increasing to 7.2 percent statewide — a year ago it sat at 4.5 percent — more families are being forced to make hard decisions between the necessities of life. Should they take the baby to the clinic for her fever or buy diapers? Should they get a tooth filled or pay the rent? Should they buy groceries or pay for that bus pass that Mom needs to get to her two jobs?
Colorado’s poverty rate increased more quickly than the national average over the past few years, and the nation’s economic woes aren’t helping the problem. No one sees the results of this more than the OUR Center, 383 Atwood St., in Longmont.
The OUR Center — that’s an acronym for Outreach United Resource Center — has carved out a big mission for itself. Not only does it provide an emergency food pantry and hot meals to hundreds each day, it also offers daycare to parents who need daycare assistance and a clothing bank, as well as a day shelter and warming center for the homeless. It also assists the county by registering children for the state’s health-insurance program, SCHIP, and connects those in need with other services, such as health care, help paying for utilities and rent and emergency shelter.
Because it sits on the frontlines, treating the symptoms of poverty, the OUR Center is a good barometer of community wellbeing, the proverbial canary in a coalmine. And based on what staff and volunteers at the OUR Center are seeing, many thousands of people in our county are in great need.
“We’ve seen a 30 percent increase in a demand for service, especially in our food program,” says Edwina Salazar, the center’s executive director. “We’re seeing more middle-class people who have been laid off and haven’t been able to find work. And, of course, we see many people in mortgage foreclosure.
“We have seen an increase in the number of families that have been insecurely housed and then the number of singles who have no option after they lose their jobs,” she continues. “If you have no safety net, you have nowhere to go. It’s a really compellingly sad situation.”
How much has demand increased for the OUR Center?
At breakfast and lunchtime, the lines stretch around the block as people of all ages and ethnicities wait for a hot meal.
“We’re feeding about 400 people a day,” Salazar says. “We were probably doing a third of that a year ago.”
The organization’s emergency food pantry is currently able to give families in acute need enough to feed everyone in the family once a day for three days. Although Salazar would like to be able to provide more, the center can’t yet do so.
Salazar says the center has been able to accomplish what it’s accomplished this year because of the generosity of people in Longmont. Several area churches have done fundraisers for the center, collecting both cash and food, an example of organized religion, much maligned in Boulder, having a positive influence in our community. In addition, the OUR Center has a cooperative arrangement with the Sister Carmen Community Center (SCCC) and Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA) that enables them to buy more food for less.
“We’re pretty much keeping up with how we’ve done business in the past,” Salazar says. “I would personally like to be able to give out more food in each visit, but we’re not there yet.”
The OUR Center isn’t alone in facing increased demand. Nonprofits throughout Boulder County from health clinics to shelters are feeling the double pinch of increased demand and, in many cases, decreased donations.
As I sit at my desk reading similar headlines from other states around the country — and reading about how communities are coming together to help those in need — I wonder if there’s not more that we can do, particularly here in the Boulder, the most affluent part of the county.
I ask Salazar what the OUR Center needs most. The answer: cash. Because of the center’s cooperative arrangement with SCCC and EFFA, a dollar they spend on food buys much more than a dollar we spend on food.
No one who still has a roof over his or her head, who still has a job, who is reading this with a full stomach, should be unmoved by this current crisis. It’s not some quaint, romantic scenario from a Dickens novel; for too many Boulder County residents it is as real as an empty stomach, as real as having no place to shower or use the restroom, as real as having to explain to the kids why home is no longer home.
There must be more we can do as a community. Most of us have reacted to the recession by tightening our belts a bit, and most of us go on about our daily lives as we did before Wall Street destroyed itself. But even the most strapped person who still has a job can come up with a buck for a cup of coffee. Imagine what we could do if we worked together consciously and conscientiously by pooling spare change and donating time to improve the well-being of others in our city and county.
In the coming weeks, Boulder Weekly will be presenting its readers with a variety of opportunities to make concrete contributions to those in need, offering simple ways to make a big difference in the lives of others. We ask that you watch these pages and respond the best you can, even if it means — gasp! — giving up your latte once a week or skipping lunch. If you have any wonderful ideas, be sure to write us a letter so that we can share them with the public.
When we’ve recovered from the current crisis — however long that takes and whatever it requires — it would be wonderful to be able to report how Boulder County came together and, in doing so, grew richer in a time of scarcity.
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