County-subsidized housing could be on the way for needy families

Housing Authority works to get the ball rolling

It’s no secret that hard times are forcing people to leave their homes. Last year there were a record 184 foreclosures started in the county. And while the traditional type of homelessness, consisting of beggars and shantytowns, isn’t generally associated with the Gunnison Valley, homelessness due to financial circumstances is on the rise.



It’s a problem Mario’s Pizza and Ristorante owners Mark and Karen Higgins have been addressing with the Gunnison-based group Living Stones to remedy, and their efforts landed them at the county’s doorstep.
“In probably the last six-to-eight months the issue came about for us. We do not have a bunch of money, but we were getting a ton of requests from people who can’t pay their rent, they can’t pay their utilities or whatever it may be,” Karen says.
The cure to the problem could come in the form of county-subsidized housing for those who need it most.
“Let me be clear, we are talking about transitional family homelessness. We’re not talking about the chronic homeless issue. So basically this would mean emergency housing,” Housing Authority Director KT Gazunis told the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, March 16.
The Housing Authority might be finding grant money to buy a property used to house families with nowhere else to stay, and to give them the encouragement and help they need to get back on their feet.
The county’s Department of Health and Human Services already has a program that provides needy families with help in the form of vouchers to stay for short periods of time at local hotels, or they can pull from a fund to help pay mortgages and rent, but not for more than one month.
But in the last year, the average time it is taking to find a new job has jumped from nine months to as much as 18 months, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. So to find a long-term solution for some of the families being forced from their homes, Gazunis turned to the State Division of Housing.
“They said they had specific grants to purchase facilities and if we were interested in purchasing a facility, the property and the title would remain in the name of the county or the Housing Authority,” Gazunis said. “The significant piece for getting financing would be having a program and a non-profit to be a partner with the program.”
Gazunis said she had some experience with a home for transitional families during her time working in Los Angeles. In that situation, the non-profit would help families get on their feet and as they progressed toward self-sufficiency, they would “graduate” out from under the non-profit umbrella and enter housing set up in a more real-world scenario.
If the county were to choose to follow the same model, the families first entering the program might receive financial counseling, résumé enhancement, job skills, help looking for jobs, help with relocation, “and they would be taught the home economics that we used to teach,” Gazunis said.
“A very critical piece is dealing with mental and emotional challenges that come with losing your job, or losing your house or both,” she said. “That would help the positive attitude you have to have to go out and keep trying to sell yourself in this economy and this market to find a new job.”
But the concerns the Higgins have been hearing aren’t just from Americans who are out of work. Sometimes, Mary says, it is illegal immigrants who spend more time trying to skirt the system than finding a job.
“Many situations are Hispanics who have had children and the parents are illegal but the children are not illegal,” she says. “They’ve been brought up in a system where they don’t know how to get I.D.s, they don’t know how to get a job. But they do know how to go to social services. We’re dealing with many people who make that their full-time job.”
Gazunis went on to say that those families aren’t getting help or training in how to build a résumé, how to be successful in a job interview or how to get out of the system.
“The system is there for a purpose and it’s a very good purpose, but I think too many people are using it. It’s not only about foreclosure situations,” she said.
Commissioner Hap Channell emphasized that the system is there for people who need it and added that part of the problem is the scarcity of programs made to help people in dire financial straits “pull themselves up.”
Although the programs Gazunis has experience with might not fit Gunnison County, she thinks there are enough programs out there that could be adapted to the county’s needs. But the programs that provide the housing and job-hunting assistance would likely be handled by a non-profit and the county or Housing Authority would act as a property manager for the housing itself.
“Last year in August, we had someone who was eligible for Section 8 [Rental Voucher Program] and we could get them into Section 8 housing. But in order to sign the lease, she needed a personal deposit and security deposit and she had no money,” Gazunis said. “She had gone to the Ministerial Alliance and asked for help and the church called me. This one church alone had given nearly $75,000 worth of housing assistance out by mid-August in 2009.”
And that’s the problem with having the community provide the majority share of assistance to the needy, Karen added. “Everybody is running out of money, including us.”
And with the tight budget the county is working with, there wasn’t much room for the commissioners to offer financial help. But Gazunis felt there could be enough grant money available to purchase a property and leave the county debt-free.
The commissioners showed unanimous support for Gazunis’ effort to find grant money to pay for the housing, as well as the Higgins’ and Living Stones’ push to start a non-profit that could handle the programs aimed at getting people back on their feet. The push is now under way.

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