Housing Divided, Part 5: Summit workers and families on brink of homelessness
October 19, 2016
Editor's note: This is the fifth in a 13-part series. Installments will appear each Thursday in the Summit Daily.
As evening approaches, Robert searches for an unrented — and unlocked — storage unit somewhere in the county. When he finds a suitable one, he slides the metal door open and moves in for the night, unloading the backpack he carries his life in.
It's cold and getting colder, but as long Robert (who asked his real name be withheld) has a door that keeps out the rain and wind, he stays warm enough.
"Just a blanket and me," he says.
“It looks so different for so many different people up here. Some people say it’s just ski resort kids, and I understand that perception. But the reality is that it legitimately affects working families.”Tamara DrangstveitFamily and Intercultural Resource Center
Robert got kicked out of the Silverthorne condo he rented with a co-worker about a month ago. Their employer had fronted their security deposit, but they still fell short on rent. When they did, their landlord sent them packing — and so did their employer.
"The place I had before that one, I got kicked out when the old owner sold it and the new owner doubled the rent," he recalls.
Robert has lived in Summit County since 1980, when ski passes were cheap and he had a decent-paying job in diesel repair. But times have changed, and this past month Robert has found himself without a home for the first time in his life.
"Rents have gone up tremendously. I hadn't noticed until I started looking and it was like, 'holy s***.' It used to be 600, 700 dollars and I thought that was steep. Now people want 1,200 dollars for a studio."
That experience is borne out in the Summit County Housing Needs Assessment, a study commissioned by the county and released in August. It found that rental vacancies were near zero, and that rents have been climbing by more than 10 percent annually.
According to the study, median rents in Summit County stand at $1,898 per month, which is deemed affordable for roughly 19 percent of the county's renters.
Even Robert's new roving setup is getting tougher: he says storage units are starting to fill up, and he's already having trouble finding open ones to camp in for the night.
A new job hasn't been forthcoming either, although not for lack of trying, he says.
"It's hard to find a place when you don't have a job, hard to find a job when you don't have a place."
On the brink
Robert is one of the scores of people that come to the Elks Lodge in Silverthorne once a week for a free dinner. He says it's the one decent meal he gets all week since the life he knew fell apart.
Every Tuesday at around 5 p.m., people start forming a line outside the Elks waiting for steaming plates of Sloppy Joes or chicken potpies served up by enthusiastic volunteers.
"We have plenty of food banks in Summit County, but what people, and especially their children need is a prepared meal," said Deborah Hage, who started the Silverthorne community dinners in 2009.
Most of the attendees aren't in quite as perilous a spot as Robert; there's no shortage of twenty-somethings with A-Basin Staff caps pulled backwards over long, scraggly hair, or families with children clamoring to skip the food line and head straight for the desserts.
It's certainly not the scene you'd see at a soup kitchen in a big city, and some of that has to do with the somewhat unique nature of homelessness in Summit County.
"It looks so different for so many different people up here," said Tamara Drangstveit, executive director for the Family and Intercultural Resource Center (FIRC). "Some people say it's just ski resort kids, and I understand that perception. But the reality is that it legitimately affects working families."
While FIRC does refer individual homeless people to services in the county, it primarily works with families in unstable housing situations — the people that are one serious illness or blown cylinder away from financial ruin.
FIRC sees roughly 3,500 families per year, and 60 to 70 percent of those, Drangstveit said, come to the organization in crisis. In Summit County, she noted, housing accounts for more than 40 percent of working families' budgets, a share that should be closer to 30. Tack on some of the highest health care costs in the state — premiums leapt 20 percent last year in the Summit — and it creates a precarious situation.
"We have very low unemployment here, and usually when you have a family you're in a place in your life where finding a job isn't as difficult," said Drangstveit. "But wages haven't kept up with housing costs."
That means finding a place to live can remain the biggest challenge, one that some families don't foresee when making the move to the High Country.
"We've seen situations where people had a job lined up, but didn't having housing, or maybe thought they had housing but it fell through," said Jeremy Frye, a pastor at the Church at Agape Outpost outside of Breckenridge. His church offers a hot meal and a chance to use showers and do laundry every Tuesday and Thursday from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.
Frye said Agape started the program in response to more and more people coming to the church for assistance in the past several years.
Often, he said, families will come in for several weeks or so and then stop showing up, which he hopes is a good sign.
"It's nice that at least for some it's a bridge rather than systemic homelessness," he said. "At least from our perspective, they got back on their feet. Either they moved on to somewhere else or they figured something out here."
Pressure on families
Chris Heath, who works in the county as a carpenter, was forced to move on with his family when their rent in Wildernest climbed to $3,500 a month, plus utilities. They first relocated to a trailer park down the hill, but even that proved to be prohibitively expensive.
Soon, Heath, his wife and kids will be packing up their things and heading to Alma, the only place they could find something year-round that would fit their budget.
"A lot of people up here see living here as a privilege, not a right," he said. "They keep all of the housing open for vacationers. When you're looking, everything's October to April."
Staying in the county, on the other hand, often means improvising.
"About six months ago we had a family of four in a one-bedroom apartment leased for a year," recalled Drangstveit. "Then the landlord says he's going to double the rent and they had 30 days to figure something out. They ended up in a unit with two other families, with their toddler and school-aged kid sleeping on a mat in the living room."
Under federal law, children in such unstable arrangements — lacking "fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence" — qualify as homeless.
Roughly 35 percent of children currently enrolled in Summit Head Start, a needs-tested program for at-risk children up to age 5, are homeless under that definition, said the organization's director Elizabeth Lowe. She's been at that post for four years, and said the number of effectively homeless children enrolled has been growing.
"Four or five years ago, overcrowding was financial: not being able to afford a place," said Drangstveit. "Now, it's not even being able to find a place at all. There just aren't enough units."
Filling in the gaps
Although Summit County lacks a central body that delivers services to the homeless or near-homeless, philanthropic and faith-based organizations coordinate to provide a patchwork of services. The Lord of the Mountains Church in Dillon alternates days of the week with Agape, opening their doors to people who need a meal, shower, laundry or internet access for an afternoon.
The Silverthorne Elks Lodge and St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Breckenridge both offer community dinners on Tuesday nights, and Father Dyer United Methodist, also in Breckenridge, has been offering meals on Sunday nights for years. Father Dyer runs a food pantry as well, as does FIRC.
One goal of these programs is to help people without a place to live find work — hence the opportunity to get cleaned up and look online for job listings. As useful as these amenities can be, though, Summit County's extremely tight housing market can make recovering from a major setback more difficult.
Jim McGuire was working at an auto body shop when he contracted a severe bacterial infection that hospitalized him for four days and left him unable to work for two months.
During that time, he lost his job and was kicked out of his apartment. After several days "couchsurfing" between friends' houses, McGuire ended up paying $600 a month for the privilege of sharing a room with seven other people in a bedbug-infested flophouse.
"About a third of the people in there are like me: sick, can't work, just one step from homelessness," he said. "I was recuperating day-by-day. It was an uphill battle."
Eventually, McGuire found a job and an apartment he shares with a roommate, but he doesn't know how much longer he'll be able to afford it on his $15-an-hour job.
Life on the outside
An obstacle to expanding services, Drangstveit offered, is the prevailing notion that many of the county's homeless are simply content to live in their cars or hop from campsite to campsite, avoiding detection by the Forest Service.
It's not an unfounded perception.
John Bawek has been living in his van for a couple of years now after retiring early. He splits seasons between Summit and Mesa counties to ride his bike.
"My setup is pretty much on purpose," he said, taking a break from buzzing around the Silverthorne Elks Lodge helping bus tables. "For a lot of people it's not on purpose, though. Maybe they don't have enough money saved. But a lot of people just wanna smoke pot and party all the time, and being homeless enables that lifestyle."
"Cas," who goes only by that name, has been homeless since about six months ago, when a woman he was staying with moved to Illinois. She invited him to come with her, but he declined; he doesn't mind the rambling lifestyle, despite the headaches that can come with it.
He's been banned from the Silverthorne Library since he fell asleep there and police dragged him out and cuffed him. He's been banned from the bus since, in his telling, he helped a woman deal with an aggressive suitor and got a knife pulled on him.
All told, he said he's been to jail "less than 10 times," often for failing to appear in court.
"It's tough to appear when you're banned from the bus," he said, with the same equanimity with which he describes even the most unpleasant aspects of life on the streets — and woods.
A couple of winters ago, he came back to his camp off of a Forest Service road and found all his belongings confiscated by rangers.
"They took everything but my hot dog forks," he recalled. That left him little choice, he said, but to do some shoplifting to replenish his stock. (He got caught). Since then, he's stopped making fires, figuring that's how the rangers figured out he was camping there.
As for if he ever wants a place of his own, Cas isn't sure.
"After I meet some of my goals, maybe," he said. "But with a place comes bills. And for bills you've gotta get a job. And I don't even know what kind of job would pay the bills up here."
That life is not for everyone, though.
After another week, Robert is tired of sleeping in 6-by-10 concrete boxes with drafty metal doors. He's tired of having to stretch what little cash he has as far as it can go. He's tired of being priced out of every house, apartment and condo in the county he's called home for more than 35 years.
He's tired of being homeless.
"Back when I moved here, the people who owned the places lived here too," he recalls. "Now they buy a condo just to rent it out. They live in Denver. They don't give a s***."
"They want first and last and a deposit, and if you don't have four grand in your pocket you can go somewhere else."
It's gotten harder to find open storage units, he says, and he's not sure how much longer his stopgap solution will do the trick.
Winter is coming, and Robert doesn't want to have to find out what it would be like to sleep outside when the heavy snows arrive. In a couple of weeks, he hopes, he'll be moving down to Texas to stay with a relative while he tries to get things back on track.
He doesn't know what that will look like, or if he'll ever come back. But his plans for now are certain.
"I'm getting on a Greyhound bus and getting the hell out of the county."