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Living on the fringe

Poverty exists not far from the shadow of Pikes Peak. Sometimes it is hidden behind doors of nice suburban homes in Falcon; more often it screams out from dilapidated buildings scattered across the eastern plains in Peyton, Calhan, Ellicott, Yoder and other small towns.No matter where it exists, the plight of the poor in unincorporated parts of El Paso County is not well known, except for a few agencies, church groups and a handful of caring neighbors.In America, determining who lives in poverty isn’t always possible. In the past, a poor person was often identified by his or her attire. Because of the many discount racks and thrift shops, looks can be deceiving. But the poor exist – in every community.According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 11.7 percent of those living in the 80808 zip code area, which covers most of Calhan and Ellicott, live below the poverty level. In the 80831 zip code area, covering Falcon and Peyton, 6.2 percent are living below the poverty level. The national rate is 12.6 percent.However, the statistics may be misleading because the federal data does not account for families who need short-term help. Jean Woolsey, director of the Helping Hands Pantry in Falcon, said they see many families who may not be considered impoverished by federal government standards, but the families still need food, medicines or help with their utility bills, just to survive.The Pikes Peak Community Action Agency receives public and private funding to assist individuals with an immediate financial crisis. “To increase the capacity of low-income people to be self-sufficient” is its mission statement. “The agency can provide one-time assistance with a medical prescription or a utility bill, but funds are not available to provide help with ongoing medical or utility expenses,” said Carl Finney, manager of the Pikes Peak Community Action Agency in Calhan. The agency also offers long-term programs designed to improve quality of life for its clients.”Two types of poverty exist: situational and generational,” Finney said. Situational poverty is easier to resolve because individuals usually have the education and skills they need to become self-sufficient, once their immediate crisis is over. Generational poverty is tough – people born into poverty may not have learned the skills or values needed to become self-sufficient. “But in both cases, the first step towards financial independence is a budget,” Finney said.A case of bad luckOne piece of bad luck – an illness or a spouse being laid off – may place working people in a situation where they need financial assistance, Finney said. Unfortunately, many try to buy time by charging food, utilities or mortgage payments to their credit cards before seeking help. “Normally, a family will expend all of their resources, perhaps burying themselves under a mountain of debt, before they will seek help from government agencies,” he said.Karen Donnelly lives in the South Fork subdivision in Falcon with her husband, Will, and four of their six children. Two children are grown and living independently.On Oct. 14, 2006, Donnelly and her family were involved in a head-on collision on Highway 94. Their vehicle flipped and landed on the passenger side, injuring Donnelly’s leg and spine. She was bedridden for 12 weeks and still wears a brace on her left leg. Although her husband’s injuries were not as severe, he still missed three weeks of work.”We tried to get the insurance company to reimburse us for the three weeks of pay Will missed and that would have allowed us to keep up with our bills,” Donnelly said. “But insurance companies don’t have to pay a thing until the final settlement, and I still need medical care for my injuries, so we can’t settle yet.”According to an MSN Money Report, the average American family has a credit card debt of $8,000; the Donnelly’s owed $4,000 to credit card companies before the accident, but missing three paychecks put them in a financial bind. “We charged food and other essentials, but late payment fees and fees for going over our credit limit began mounting,” Donnelly said. “Now we need help. I never thought I would find myself in this position.”The family cut all non-essential expenses and her husband set up a budget, she said. “Will recently received a job promotion as a regional manager for Pizza Hut, and that is going to help us a lot,” Donnelly said. She also drives a cab at night, in spite of the brace on her leg.”Our family expects to be back on our feet soon,” she said. And Donnelly is grateful for the help she did receive. “I’m very thankful for the Helping Hands Pantry,” she said. “I don’t know what we would have done without their support. The volunteers there are so helpful, and they don’t make you feel bad about needing assistance.”From generation to generation“People who are born into poverty need to be taught skills that many of us learned while growing up,” Finney said. “More of it exists here (in Calhan) than in Falcon and I often deal with three generations of individuals from the same family who struggle with poverty. Often, it’s just a matter of teaching people how to save money during the summer so they can pay their heating bill in the winter.”He cited one situation where a family was heating their home with electric space heaters. “In this case, it was clear that getting the family onto propane could save hundreds of dollars, but often people are so overwhelmed with their current problems that common solutions don’t occur to them,” Finney said.Rick Jenkins, who taught school in Calhan for 30 years, said he saw a significant amount of generational poverty. “While there was a small group of students who were well dressed, there were other students who wore the same thing every day because it was the only clothing they owned,” Jenkins said. “By the time they reach high school, there is a very noticeable negative attitude directed at these kids by those students who are better off.”Often, the poorer students struggled to get the most out of their education.” Jenkins talked about finding a senior close to tears at one of the graduation ceremonies. He asked the senior if there was a problem, and Jenkins recalled the answer: “No,” the student replied, “I was just thinking; I’m the first person in my family to graduate from high school.” Jenkins said the senior reminded him why he chose teaching as a profession. “Education can have a profound and lasting effect on the lives of individuals.”Reviewing the percentages of students who receive reduced or free lunches might be a good indication of the poverty in eastern El Paso County, Jenkins said.Terry Ebert, superintendent for Ellicott School District, said he is aware that more than 57 percent of the student body receives free or reduced lunches. “The income level in Ellicott does make the job more challenging for the district’s staff and teachers,” Ebert said. He also cited teacher retention, the need for additional pre-school child care, difficulties with school bond issues and the lack of computers in homes as problems the district faces.”Recruiting teachers isn’t a problem, but teacher retention is because wealthier school districts in the Springs pay more,” Ebert said. “So once a teacher has a few years experience, they simply apply to a district in town, get more pay and save money by not having to drive to Ellicott.”Early childhood education is critical in a district where the majority of parents travel long distances to work, Ebert said.And there are disadvantages to low-income children who don’t have access to home computers. Ebert said district teachers have been told they cannot give their students computer projects unless the students can complete the task at school because “many families in this district do not own a computer.”Freedom on the prairie has its priceWoolsey said many Falcon residents who come to the pantry have huge credit card debt or have just gone through a divorce. “I don’t have any statistics to show how many of our clients may be living without power, but I do know people who live in unincorporated parts of the county are very independent,” Woolsey said. “Remember how many people in this area fought against zoning?”People want the freedom to live how they want, but sometimes they make poor choices because they don’t have all the facts. People move to the plains because of the cheap land prices, but they don’t consider all of the costs involved with setting up a home in the country. Then there’s the added expense of driving to their jobs.”Finney said people also never consider the cost of heating poorly constructed homes.A school bus driver, who wishes to remain anonymous, said he knows there are people living on the plains with no electricity, well or septic system. “These people are clinging to the American dream and often just want to be left alone. It doesn’t mean they are criminals because they live differently than the majority of people – nor are they noble.” He is concerned when poverty affects children. “In some cases, poverty is self-inflicted and it’s the children who suffer because people don’t know how to prioritize their goals,” he said. Some parents can still afford to drink, smoke or own numerous animals, at the same time their children are shabbily dressed or may not be getting enough to eat, he added. “It’s OK to want a home in the country, it’s OK to want horses, but the first priority for any parent should be to care for their children.”But owning land in the country is enticing to many.According to real estate ads in an August issue of the Gazette, a 40-acre parcel of vacant land in Yoder sells for $40,000, while a 5-acre lot with utilities in Peyton costs $104,000. The 40-acre parcel may look good, but the new landowner has to install electricity, a well and a septic system. “It costs around $12 per foot to drill a well, plus there’s an additional expense of around $6,000 for the pump and pressure tank,” said Gary Grant, from Barnhart Drilling. “And if the well needs to be deeper than 700 feet, all of those expenses are doubled.” A representative from Kunau Drilling said the average cost of a standard septic system for a four-bedroom home is about $5,000.”Running electricity to a property is often the most expensive part of building a home in the country,” said Darryl Edwards, manager for Mountain View Electric. “Mountain View charges $7 per foot to run power to a lot plus $1,800 to install a transformer and meter.” At that rate, it would cost $20,280 to bring electricity to a property that is a half-mile from the nearest utility line.”Even if someone can afford to build a home in the country, local job opportunities are fairly miniscule,” Finney said. “And anyone living in this region should add the additional expense associated with making a round-trip commute of up to 100 miles daily to their budget.”Woolsey agreed. “And now gas prices are really hitting everyone hard,” she said. She is trying to implement car maintenance and budgeting courses at the pantry.Regardless of the high gas prices and long commutes, some cannot give up their country lifestyle.”Many of my friends tell me I should sell my horses and move to the city in order to avoid the high gas prices,” said Sarah Hale of Yoder. “But I was born on a farm in Iowa, and I am what I am. I can’t live anywhere but in the country, and I love animals too much to live without them.”Hale said her lifestyle allows more time with her 7-year-old daughter, Shayla, who is entering first grade this year. She said Shayla reads well and has learned how to care for the animals on the property.Hale rents a home on 80 acres and has seven horses, two pigs, chickens, a llama, a dog and several cats. She said her goal is to become self-sufficient so she can always “be there” for her daughter. Currently, she trains horses, disassembles trailer homes and hauls trash for income.Hale also receives financial assistance from the pantry, but she said her need is temporary until she generates more income. She also gives back to the pantry. “My chickens supply enough eggs to share with other pantry recipients,” Hale said.But she is aware that she pays a price for living in the country. It’s a 70-mile round-trip journey from her Yoder home to the pantry in Falcon, she said, adding that “now that the Wal-Mart is open, I should be able to save some gas because I won’t have to drive into the Springs.”Recovery means setting goalsJack Freeman, a clinical social worker who works with the Veterans Administration, said he sets goals with all of his clients, including the homeless people. “Set attainable and measurable goals,” Freeman said. “Without goals, there is little chance those overwhelmed by financial difficulties can improve their financial situation.”And goals to prevent financial woes are equally important. Woolsey said the majority of people in financial turmoil didn’t see it coming: “I think many of the people coming to the Helping Hands Pantry never expected to be in their current financial situation.”

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