Requests overwhelming agencies — but is it pot that’s bringing more poor to Pueblo? | AspenTimes.com
Peter Roper
The Pueblo Chieftain

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Requests overwhelming agencies — but is it pot that’s bringing more poor to Pueblo?

Is legalized marijuana bringing more poor people to Pueblo County?

For local nonprofit agencies that are the front line in dealing with indigent people, there is no question more poor single people and families have been knocking on their doors in the past few years.

Eva Matola spoons food onto trays for them at the Pueblo Community Soup Kitchen. The men and women — often wearing all the clothes they own — sit against the brick wall of the soup kitchen every weekday, waiting for its doors to open for lunch.

"We're feeding about 160 people a day, and that's about 30 more than we were doing last year," said Matola, who is the director of the soup kitchen. "And I've had several families in here saying they've come to Pueblo because pot is legal here. They aren't shy about telling you."

“Expanding Medicaid is certainly one reason people are coming to Colorado, but I still rank pot as the biggest attractor.”Anne Stattelmandirector, Posada Pueblo

Anne Stattelman, director of Posada Pueblo, an emergency housing agency, has developed a reputation as a community scold on marijuana over the past two years because she's been telling Pueblo County and city officials that legal pot is bringing more indigent people to town.

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That's because many of them end up in Posada's parking lot, asking or demanding some kind of housing for themselves and their families.

Some say they want to find work in the marijuana industry. Some just want to be able to use the drug legally.

An older SUV from Kansas was in Posada's lot just a few weeks ago. There were three or four children and several adults from Wichita. They told Stattelman they'd left Wichita — where they had assisted housing and food stamps — to come to Pueblo, and they needed a place to stay.

For some time now, Posada has been reserving its small inventory of emergency housing units for Pueblo County residents first, and Stattelman has built a close working relationship with Pueblo police — who told the Kansas family their best bet was to turn around and take the children back to Wichita rather than end up on Pueblo's streets.

"Fortunately, that's what they did," Stattelman said. "Or what they said they'd do."

Unlike government agencies, Posada's staff asks people coming to them for help why they are in Pueblo. Two years ago, 231 people asking for help — both individuals and families — said they hoped to find work in the new marijuana industry.

That grew to 273 people in 2015, she said.

Stattelman argues there are three major reasons poor people are coming to Pueblo: legalized marijuana, the fact that Colorado has expanded its Medicaid health insurance program for the indigent (as part of the federal Affordable Care Act), and the county's now-national reputation as a cheap place to live.

"Expanding Medicaid is certainly one reason people are coming to Colorado, but I still rank pot as the biggest attractor," she said.

County officials report there are about 67,000 residents who receive some kind of disability payment.

If you are poor and want federal assistance in finding housing, you are looking for something called a Section 8 housing voucher. The Pueblo Housing Authority oversees that program locally. Once a person has qualified for that federal assistance, he or she can take the voucher from state to state — except for Hawaii and Alaska.

Laurie Linn of the housing authority said the agency has about 1,470 vouchers it administers. There are another 500 people on its waiting list (there is turnover), and the agency is about to open the list for more applications. Some Section 8 programs, such as Denver's, haven't opened their waiting list in years — which is one reason why more people wanting to move to Colorado are calling the Pueblo Housing Authority, Linn said.

In 2014, the agency received just 38 applications for Section 8 housing from out-of-state residents. Last year, that jumped to 452 applications. Part of the increase could be linked to the agency putting its Section 8 voucher application process online.

But Linn points out that whether the applicants are interested in legal marijuana or not, there is an indisputable surge in interest in moving to Pueblo County from people wanting housing assistance.

"The catch for Section 8 applicants is they are not allowed to use drugs in our houses, period," she said. "Marijuana is still against federal law, and we make all our voucher applicants sign a letter of understanding that no marijuana is allowed, regardless of Colorado law."

Linn said that in her experience, only one resident has ever been evicted for violating the drug policy.

Not everyone moving to Pueblo for legalized pot wants subsidized housing, either.

One local real estate agent said he recently checked on a small one-bedroom rental where a couple, their four children and two grandparents were living. Eight people in a one-bedroom house.

"A good friend of mine owns the property, and he said the couple were starting to miss rent payments," the agent said. "He called it a pot problem, because they always seemed to have that."

Tim Hart, director of Pueblo County Department of Social Services, said he is familiar with the anecdotal stories about poor people and marijuana.

He doesn't disagree that there are more poor people coming to the county, but Hart says that's true across the state. That more people are applying for Medicaid health insurance coverage can be traced to the fact that more now qualify, both longtime residents and newcomers, he said.

And the legalized marijuana industry has also brought new businesses and new employment to Pueblo County — about 1,300 jobs, according to officials — so it shouldn't be surprising that a surge in migration by poor and low-income people would come along with it.