Giving Thought: Emergency assistance lends a hand when it’s most needed

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

In late October, Western Colorado experienced an early cold snap that, combined with significant snowfall, got many of us thinking about winter and looking ahead to ski season and the holidays.

For those without a roof over their heads, however, the cold temperatures were a bitter, sooner-than-expected wake-up to the realities of winter. And when the weather changes that way, local providers of emergency assistance expect the phone to ring.

“We did see some requests for people wanting to get out of town as the weather got cold,” said Marian McDonough of Catholic Charities in Glenwood Springs. “We might see an increase in asks for utility help next month, as people had unexpected spikes in their October bills.”

Emergency assistance refers to short-term monetary help that is given to keep people safe and warm when they’re on the financial edge. The assistance goes from the nonprofit — Catholic Charities or The Salvation Army, for example — to a landlord or motel or utility company, whatever it takes to keep people safe and secure.

As McDonough mentioned, it can be a Greyhound ticket to family or friends in Denver, for example. The assistance also can take the form of a payment to an electrical or natural gas utility, in order to keep the lights or the boiler on.

“Even if you have a roof over your head,” said Karen Lee of The Salvation Army’s Glenwood Springs office, “you still need to have heat in your home and be able to make a warm meal.”

Those seeking emergency assistance are often working people who have experienced some sort of unexpected setback.

“Most of the people who need help in our community are the service providers,” McDonough said. “You see them in the restaurants and hotels, bolstering the tourist economy. And yet they’ve got the lowest-paying jobs.”

For some, their wages are barely sufficient to cover their costs of living. So when a medical emergency or a car breakdown befalls a family, there’s often not enough income to pay all of the bills. A car problem can be doubly difficult because it prevents a person from driving to work at the very time when big bills are coming due.

Another factor is the weather-driven seasonality of the local economy. When early snowfall puts a premature stop to fall landscaping work, for example, then that means less money in workers’ wallets. Of course, if you’re a snow-removal person, then an early snowfall can be a good thing. But weather fluctuations can cut both ways, and they’re virtually impossible to plan for. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, then you simply can’t afford an unexpected interruption of your work.

“Over and over, people come into my office and say they’ve never been in this position before, but here they are and they’ve been knocked down farther than they ever expected,” said Lee of the Salvation Army. “It’s hard to comprehend how difficult it can be for a person to climb back up.”

Emergency assistance is a way of helping people when they are faced with a temporary financial hardship. If a client has an illness of some kind, then money for prescription medications can be crucial. Even gasoline or bus fare for an important doctor’s appointment can make a difference. Every case is different, and they’re often complicated.

Lee sees emergency assistance as a “hand up” rather than a “handout,” and thinks it’s a necessary part of a caring community. McDonough, of Catholic Charities, looks at the issue from a personal standpoint.

“Right now, I couldn’t imagine ever being homeless because I have friends and family to fall back on,” she said. “But this is a transient area and a lot of people come here without that safety net. They don’t have a person who could loan them $1,000. Maybe their credit is bad or they got evicted somewhere.”

She pauses before adding, “we want to get them the help they need and retain their dignity in the process.”

These organizations and others providing emergency assistance are nonprofit organizations that rely on contributions to help individuals and families in times of need. Aspen Community Foundation provides some support through annual grants, but it takes the generosity of many donors to ensure that this assistance is available when it is needed.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.