Giving Thought: The front line in the battle to give economic aid

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

The amount and degree of need out there is staggering.

Yes, it’s true that the coronavirus pandemic has affected us all, inconvenienced us all and forced everyone to change their habits at home and out in the world. But those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder feel the stress more acutely, and it’s those individuals and families for whom temporary unemployment or underemployment can be truly catastrophic.

Karen Lee, Roaring Fork Valley Coordinator for the Salvation Army, sees and experiences the depth of our societal need every day of every week at her small office in Glenwood Springs. The phone rings almost as constantly as clients, often with a child in tow, knock on the door. It could be a plea for help on the rent or a utility bill, but often as not it’s a more complex problem involving an eviction or a domestic violence incident on top of an empty bank account.

“January is typically very busy and we average 55 families with financial assistance plus the case work,” she said. “This year the demand is three times greater — and that’s a polite estimate.”

Over the past 10 years, the office has averaged about $60,000 per year in rental assistance, but in 2020 rental assistance skyrocketed to $375,000, thanks to numerous COVID-specific donations. She projects that 2021 will be roughly the same if not higher.

“When people reach the bottom financially, recovery is slow,” she said.

It’s hard to generalize about the people who visit Lee’s office because every human and every family is unique but, in her experience, poverty often goes hand-in-hand with alcohol or substance abuse. Poor health often afflicts one or more people in these households, and the cost of medications and treatment can often hold a family down. A child with developmental issues, a parent with a terminal disease, or one family member with a chronic heart or lung ailment can prevent a household from ever getting ahead.

And the pandemic aggravates each of these problems — not only because people with underlying health problems are more vulnerable to virus infection — but because they often cannot work. So, Lee explains, COVID-19 has exacerbated all of the troubles that plague those who live paycheck-to-paycheck. Also, it has snagged many of the valley’s families who have worked multiple jobs to make ends meet and have never experienced this kind of need.

“There’s nowhere for people to turn to bring in that extra side job, that so many local people are capable of doing,” she said.

Often the only way that Lee can help is to listen, understand someone’s trouble and perhaps give some advice. While it doesn’t pay the bills, lending an ear helps to ease the pain for someone in dire straits, helping them feel less isolated.

The huge caseloads have challenged Lee and her employees, but with tight budgets it’s now just Lee and one other person handling an unprecedented number of cases. Volunteers have been a huge help in the busy Salvation Army office, especially during the Christmas season, when they contributed more than 300 hours.

Kathy Wren, who last fall lost her job at Valley View Hospital, is donating her time to help Lee update the database and enter all the new clients. When Wren first showed up before Thanksgiving to lend a hand, Lee was beyond grateful for the help.

“She almost cried,” Wren recalled. “She’s so busy and so overwhelmed, but she has a heart of gold.”

Lee admits that she’s fallen behind on just about everything, but she can’t ignore the slow parade of desperate people who call or knock, seeking help to get through another rough patch. “Please bear with me,” she asks, before returning to the temporarily homeless person who is warming up in the office while the snow falls outside.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.


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