Energy industry layoffs have driven many into long lines for assistance

Receptionist Kathy Gerlock keeps a puzzle on her desk, a circular kiosk at the entrance to the Mesa County Department of Human Services.

“That’s for if there is a lot of people waiting,” Gerlock said.

The puzzle, a peaceful nature scene with elm trees in a mountain meadow, is fitted together one piece at a time by food stamp applicants. Since late last year, many hands have fiddled with the puzzle while waiting in line to reach the food stamp application window about 50 feet away.

“Some days they are clear out around the kiosk,” said Stella Armenta, an administrative specialist for Human Services.

Recent layoffs, primarily in the energy sector, have triggered a run on food stamps.

Comparing March 2008 to March of this year, applications have risen 97 percent. However, because many of the new applicants have assets that keep them from qualifying, the number of households that qualify to receive food assistance increased by only 21 percent. 

“We got to where we would kind of watch the news (for reports of layoffs),” said Amy VanNoy, who processes food stamp applications, “and then we would kind of brace ourselves for another rush.”

Application numbers have increased from roughly between 15 to 20 a day to an average of 34 a day, according to Human Services.

Between Human Services and the Mesa County Work Force Center, which also processes a limited number of food stamp applications, the county has been averaging approximately 640 food stamp applications a month since the start of the year. About half of the applications are approved, said Michelle Trujillo, division director for Human Services.

“In October the economy hit us like a brick wall. It kind of caught us off guard,” Trujillo said.

“In September it was great around here, but literally, it was a month later that people started coming in in droves.”

In September the unemployment rate in Grand Junction was 3.5 percent with 1,123 people unemployed. As of March, the latest numbers available, the unemployment rate in Grand Junction hit 8.2 percent, and 6,960 people were out of work.

“That has just knocked us off our feet,” Human Services Director Len Stewart said. “We are experiencing a significant backlog.”

The applications for assistance backed up quickly. Some applicants were not receiving benefits within 60 days, the federally mandated time window for new applicants. Because human service agencies across the country are facing many of the same circumstances, all federal penalties for delaying the disbursement of benefits have been waived, Stewart said.

Besides the sheer numbers invading human services, social workers are also seeing many new faces in the throng of applicants.

“People are so surprised,” Stewart said. “It’s possible to be completely against the wall before you get all the paperwork in with us.”

Oftentimes people in dire straits wait until they are nearly broke to apply, not knowing it could take weeks to get food stamps.

“Surprisingly, I would say, we have had a lot of understanding people,” VanNoy said.

During the waiting period, applicants are directed to other services in the community such as Catholic Outreach, the Grand Junction Housing Authority and B4 Babies and Beyond.

To clear out the logjam in Human Services, the agency has taken on eight new employees plus several interns from the Workforce Center.

The employees, despite the county’s current policy against new hires, will not be terminated when the logjam is cleared.

Rather, new openings (created by retirements and such) will not be filled until the department’s employment numbers return to previous levels.

“They have really helped us move the paperwork through,” Stewart said.

Paperwork can take an hour to be completed by applicants, even for seasoned veterans.

“The amount of paperwork is ridiculous,” said Steve, who prefers to be known as “Lumber Jack” and declined to give his last name.

He and his friend Julie, who did not want her last name printed, have applied for food stamps the last three years in a row.

“We both live down by the riverbank. We got a vegetable garden and a tent,” Steve said.

“We’re not homeless; we’re houseless. We live outdoors on purpose.”

Three years ago, when the state was breaking in a new computer system, it took them three months to get food stamps and other benefits.

“And then when they did pay me, they overpaid,” Julie said.

The system is not as sluggish as it was then, but it has bogged down.

Stewart estimated it could take 60 to 90 days to get the new staff trained and the application process moving in a “steady, manageable state.”


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