New face of Arizona's poor: College-educated, laid-off and homeless
Posted: Saturday, September 25, 2010 12:00 pm
Dan Zeiger, Tribune
The recent dire statistics for Arizona - one in five people in the state lives in poverty, and the unemployment rate is the highest in three decades - came as no surprise to those on the front lines of the battle.
The troubling trends are exemplified in the flood of aid requests that come into relief agencies each day, including an outreach event for at-risk people hosted by the United Way on Thursday in Gilbert. And not all of the 100-plus aid seekers that visited Sun Valley Community Church by late morning fit the mold.
"We're seeing many more of the newly-homeless or people on the edge of being homeless," said Brian Spicker, Valley of the Sun United Way senior vice president for community impact.
"The face of poverty is changing, as they say. We're seeing more and more people with four-year (college) degrees. We aren't talking about only people who dropped out of school."
The United Way outreach event is performed once a month at sites around the East Valley. More than 20 providers and 140 volunteers help offer access to such services as employment referrals, wellness exams, shelter, counseling, food, clothing and haircuts.
Vicki Hartman of Gilbert attended in hopes of finding a job and dental care for her two children, one suffering from Down syndrome, the other with autism.
"I get no support from their dad, which really makes it tough," Hartman said. "I can't work a lot, because I have to be Mom and Dad. I'm just trying to see what my options are."
The latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that 1.4 million Arizonans - or 21.2 percent - live below the federal poverty level, which is $21,954 of annual income for a family of four. That percentage is second-highest in the nation, behind Mississippi.
Add an August state unemployment rate of 9.7 percent, and foreclosure still looming for many, things could get worse before they get better.
"We're seeing more and more people in need every day," said Shawna Fellenz, program manager for Community Services of Arizona, whose Community Action Program provides short-term assistance with housing expenses.
"We are inundated with requests for assistance, up to 200 a week. That's just the people who know about us. There is definitely a need in Gilbert and Chandler. ... We could probably triple our staff and still be busy."
The Maricopa Association of Governments' annual homeless street count, released in March, indicated that 2,729 people were on the streets, a 6-percent decrease from 2009.
But that number does not include those living in a shelter or with friends or relatives.
"It's a new situation for a lot of people in our area, where many people have social capital, so they can borrow from and stay with others and get by for a while in a low- or no-income situation," Fellenz said. "Some people don't considers themselves homeless if they are not on the street, if they are staying with their parents."
Clint Herbert of Mesa stayed with friends after losing his job as a car-wash manager a year ago.
"Technically, yeah, I was homeless," he said. "I was bouncing around for a while."
He is currently staying at the East Valley Men's Center shelter and recently found a job as a maintenance man at an apartment complex. Herbert was at the United Way event to submit paperwork to the Department of Economic Security - he still qualifies for some state aid - and open a bank account.
"I'm just getting back on my feet," Herbert said. "I have a lot of empathy for people who lost their job, house and are trying to feed their kids. I'm grateful for the help I got."
Sitting in an auditorium, where event attendees received a free meal, Spicker pointed to some of the dozens of service booths, manned by volunteers from the local business and faith community. He said their generosity will be vital to helping reverse Arizona's poverty, unemployment and homeless numbers.
"The size of the (poverty-rate) jump was a surprise," Spicker said. "I knew it would increase, but it's one in five people, and it's sobering to see that so many of those individuals are children. A good start in life really creates what we have and are as adults.
"We're trying to get children into services immediately, so we don't see a cycle in poverty. That's most tragic."