Summit County officials address needs related to poverty at conference
“I don’t know how often we say the word poverty,” said Summit County Commissioner Joshua Blanchard.
At the 2022 Region 8 Community Action Conference, hosted by the Colorado Community Action Association, Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons and Blanchard spoke on a panel about how to engage public officials around issues of poverty. Both agreed that it affects residents in Summit County.
On the closing day of the conference, held in Breckenridge on Friday, July 22, FitzSimons and Blanchard spoke on a panel about what poverty looks like in the county and how they, as officials, try to support residents affected.
During his opening remarks, Blanchard said many folks in the county are affected by situational poverty. Situational poverty is when poverty is temporary, often caused by a sudden life crisis.
In Summit County, Blanchard said situational poverty is caused by living in the environment of a rural resort community.
He attributed this to unsteady growth factors within a dynamic economy. Factors included inflation, market uncertainty and even weather, since Summit County’s economy and a large chunk of its employment relies on the outdoor recreation industry. In addition, Blanchard said the county’s economy relies on necessary — but often low-paying — seasonal jobs. Construction work and catering were two examples he gave.
So what does poverty look like in Summit County?
FitzSimons said people use the phrase “you’ve got to be all in” to live comfortably in Summit County. He said many people work two to three jobs just to stay afloat. Though many people wouldn’t say they are experiencing poverty — because of those three jobs — FitzSimons said that’s one example of what it may look like in Summit.
“A lot of people come here to the county because they want to live this ski dream,” FitzSimons said. “And they find out that is completely unaffordable.” This results in what FitzSimons called “pockets” of homelessness throughout the county.
Though it’s not always visible, FitzSimons said homelessness in Summit is there and it’s important to pay attention to.
“If you sit on (Colorado) Highway 9, looking north out of the (Elks Lodge) parking lot and you watch how people come out of the forest and start crossing the highway, you’ll be moved,” he said.
Working class folks in Summit County may also experience aspects of poverty.
“When I think about poverty, it’s the ability for people to access their basic needs,” Blanchard said.
Blanchard addressed three basic needs that are affecting residents in Summit County: housing insecurity, food insecurity due to price increases and the inability to access “consistent, equitable childcare.”
Blanchard brought attention to the fact that the average median income of a four-person family in Summit County is $99,800, according to the Summit Combined Housing Authority.
To give attendees some perspective on why families may still struggle, Blanchard spotlighted a house that had been listed on the market just a day before the panel. It was a 552-square-foot home with two bedrooms and one bathroom in Breckenridge. The listing price was $530,000.
“We’re looking at that missing middle, that middle class,” Blanchard said.
The two officials mentioned programs like Housing Helps, the Buy-Down program, the sheriff’s office Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team, otherwise known as SMART, as well as pre-trial services and the number of institutions that offer free food and meals in Summit County that may help to lessen the effects of poverty.
Blanchard, however, said he wants more programs that will help county residents and also get them on their feet. While county programs can be helpful, they don’t always prepare residents for independence.
“The cliff of that journey is very real,” Blanchard said. “And when you work yourself through your household income and resources, then you no longer qualify for some of these support programs.”
For example, to qualify for free school lunches in Summit School District, a family of four must make only $29,939 for free lunch and $42,606 for reduced lunch. And still, families above that income level may not be able to pay for both school lunches and rent.
Blanchard said commissioners are dedicated to creating more programs and identifying where needs in Summit are the greatest.
“The folks that I talk to in Summit County are some of the hardest working people,” Blanchard said.
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