La Puente is multi-tool of valley assistance

SAN LUIS VALLEY — La Puente is a familiar name in the San Luis Valley and for good reason. Primarily known for La Puente Home located in Alamosa, the organization sets the standard in services provided for people experiencing homelessness.

What many don’t know is that the “homeless shelter” is only one part – and one of the smallest parts, at that – of the ways La Puente supports the valley’s most vulnerable population. La Puente also has a program known as the Crisis Prevention Resources Program, and its mission is directly aligned with its name: “to provide homeless prevention services to individuals and families experiencing a crisis in the San Luis Valley by providing assistance with rent, mortgage, utility, energy, medical and crisis expenses.”

According to the US Census Bureau’s five-year population estimates from the 2014 – 2018 American Community Survey, four of the six counties in the San Luis Valley are among the poorest counties in Colorado.

That fact alone demonstrates the importance of an organization like La Puente.  But throw COVID into the equation along with its devastating impact on vulnerable populations, and La Puente’s services become critical.

“When COVID hit, a lot of things happened,” says Lance Cheslock, Executive Director of La Puente Home.

“We had to close the doors of the shelter to do intakes and heavily screen who could come in. We could still enroll new people, but we had to follow protocol limiting how many people we could serve. We went from serving fifty or sixty people to thirty.”

Limited space led to more people “on the outside”, “couch surfing” or sleeping in cars or on the streets. “The numbers of unsheltered people skyrocketed, so our job was to find housing for them.”

Thanks to $300,000 in grant funding specifically for housing issues related to COVID, the staff were successful in finding housing for those in immediate need. But that was only part of the problem.

The economic impact of COVID restrictions, including the mandated statewide shutdown, was enormous.  “We were getting calls from people who’d been laid off from work. People who worked in restaurants, non-essential businesses, potato workers…all sorts of people lost their jobs and started getting utility shut off notices when they couldn’t pay their bill or eviction notices when they couldn’t pay their rent.” Again, the grant funding was invaluable in preventing homelessness. According to data from the end of November 2020, La Puente assisted 108 households in all six counties in the San Luis Valley with one, two or three months rent, literally buying time to find a job or plan the next step.

“It’s typical for about thirty people a month to get eviction notices in the valley. Add in COVID, and that’s a lot of displacement going on.”

Thanks to the funding, La Puente was able to not just place homeless people into housing but to also keep people who already had housing in their homes.

How an individual or family ends up homeless is complicated, but, according to Cheslock, utility shut off is a precursor to becoming homeless. Figures from the end of November 2020 also show that La Puente has assisted 810 households who were in severe arrears and had either gotten shut off notices or were at risk of utility shut-off.

“If you put a red dot on households we helped, you’d see them spread out across the valley – sometimes with two or three houses on the same street. We helped people in the country, in “Iraqi Flats”, Saguache, Crede, Moffat…those red dots would be peppered all over.” All of these assists are done by La Puente Crisis Prevention Resources Program, largely staffed by Americorps volunteers, stretching grant dollars even further. “We want people to know we have this program. If they’re getting utility or eviction notices, we can help.”

La Puente was recently awarded a second grant that, like the first, is specifically earmarked to assist with housing issues related to COVID.  And, from the numbers Cheslock provides, the funding is greatly needed.

“We currently have 68 people who are homeless and have severe issues. We also have 21 families who have resources but there’s a lack of affordable housing. Eviction notices have been increasing at a rate of 53% per month. Sometimes, it feels like we’re climbing up a hill made of sand, but we know numbers are going to level out with the vaccine. It’s just going to get worse before it gets better.”

Despite the long battle behind and a long battle up ahead, Cheslock has high praise for the way people have responded. “COVID has required us to work together. If people experiencing homelessness get infected, they can infect others. So, the city, county, faith community, law enforcement, public health, Valleywide, the hospital – we all came together and we work together better now and are so much stronger as a team than at any time in our history. Everyone sitting around the table would agree that COVID has been hard but, in requiring us to work together, we’ve built a partnership that will last long after COVID is over.”