Help requests soar in Pitkin County |

Help requests soar in Pitkin County

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Demand for public assistance in Pitkin County has increased dramatically as the populace continues to grapple with the Great Recession.

Already, the county has distributed close to half of the money it has budgeted this year to provide emergency assistance to residents.

The county’s Emergency Assistance Fund, first established last year with unspent revenues generated by the Healthy Community Fund tax, dolled out $19,324 of its $20,000 budget to about 120 recipients in 2009. Three months into 2010, some $9,000 of the $20,000 allocation has already been distributed.

But, that’s what it’s there for.

Pitkin County is unique in establishing a locally supported fund that residents can turn to for one-time, emergency assistance to buy food, cover a month’s rent, pay utility bills and such, according to Mitzi Ledingham, the county’s deputy director of Health and Human Services and the administrator of the fund.

Both residents who’ve turned to other forms of public assistance, such as programs funded by the federal government, and those who’ve never before sought help have made use of the Emergency Assistance Fund.

“With the recession, we’ve seen more and more of the latter – people who’ve never had to ask for anything before,” Ledingham said.

An applicant’s income and assets are reviewed; if they’re eligible, the program is quite flexible in what it will cover in order to help, she said. No cash goes to the applicant; rather, the bill is paid directly.

“They don’t have to be afraid to come in here if they’re in need,” Ledingham said.

“I think we all have trouble with pride – let’s call it that, for lack of a better word,” said one Aspen woman who received help from the fund. She asked not to be identified. Now employed, the woman called the program “a godsend.”

A Woody Creek resident said he very nearly changed his mind about seeking assistance from the fund after his request was approved. He was ready to tell Ledingham to forget the whole thing.

“It felt very wrong to take it. It was like getting something without doing something for it,” said the man, who also asked not to be identified. “But I was in a situation where I truly needed it. It has helped me out enormously.”

He said he inquired about repaying the $1,500 he was granted, but was advised to make a donation to other causes, which he intends to do, he said.

A March 9 report to county commissioners indicates $6,348 had been allocated so far from this year’s $20,000 Emergency Assistance Fund balance. That sum was close to two weeks out of date by Friday, when Ledingham said about $9,000 in grants had been approved.

The tax-supported Healthy Community Fund, set to expire in 2012, generates about $1.4 million annually to support various health and human service programs and nonprofits. It also supports the Emergency Assistance Fund. Another allocation is possible if the $20,000 already budgeted is depleted, according to Nan Sundeen, director of Health and Human Services.

Demand for the fund mirrors the increase in need for other forms of public assistance in Pitkin County.

According to the report to commissioners, total applications for public assistance in the county last year were up 62 percent compared to 2008. The caseload of applicants who qualified for some type of help jumped 52 percent, to 328 cases.

The food assistance caseload was up about 91 percent in December alone, with 88 cases, compared to the same month in 2008.

Pitkin County saw the biggest percentage jump in the state in money provided through the federal food assistance program between January and November 2009, according to the report.

The Low Income Energy Assistance Program saw a 27 percent increase in applications for heating bill assistance from the 2008-09 to 2009-10 heating seasons (as of Feb. 28, 2010), the report indicates.

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