Heart of La Puente: the Need Unseen

Craig DenUyl
The Paw Print

“That was my house growing up,” said my guide, M.B.  “And that’s the park where they used to freeze to death in the winters,” she added pointing almost directly across the street.  That day M.B. drove me all around her Colorado town, located just a short drive outside of the San Luis Valley.  She gave me a personal tour of all of the less desirable parts of town which most tourists would never see.  The people who used to die in the park next to M.B.’s house were, of course, the poor and homeless of the area.  M.B. quickly grew tired of finding bodies in the parks of her lovely city and founded a homeless shelter to help her neighbors in need.  That was why I had gone to visit her.
I am a community educator with La Puente, a non-profit organization serving the San Luis Valley by providing emergency food, shelter, and advocacy for the homeless and community members in need.  It is my job to learn about poverty and homelessness in order to educate myself and others on how to overcome these issues.  One of my first weeks on the job, I was sent on an uncommon tour of southwest Colorado: a tour of need, emergency services, and the issues of the less fortunate in our great state.
I began in the San Luis Valley itself examining migrant worker issues.  With agriculture as the main industry of the Valley, each harvest thousands of workers find their way to the SLV in search of employment.  I saw first-hand the unkempt, bleak, barrack-style housing available for many of the agricultural workers who harvest our food.  Migrant housing is a challenge for most agricultural communities, and as a result La Puente sees the number of its guests sky-rocket each fall.  Recently La Puente served over 140 people at one of its community meals.  In a town of only about 8,000 people this amounts to just under 2% of the population eating in the homeless shelter or almost 1 in every 50 people in the city.
My tour continued out of the valley to a nearby homeless/domestic violence partnership shelter.  I learned how domestic violence is a huge cause of homelessness, and that almost 20% of homeless individuals are survivors of such violence.  The shelter director also told me how 60% of the homeless in Colorado are families and that 70% of able-bodied adults in her building were still employed, despite not even having their own house to sleep in.  She told me a story of a family with young children who moved to the shelter after the roof of their house caved in.  It took four months of working while residing at the shelter for the family to save enough money to fix their roof and return home.
My tour concluded the following day with M.B. at her shelter.  Her town is not far from several American Indian reservations.  While other wealthier cities are closer to some of the reservations, many of these towns are so unfriendly toward the native population that tribal members drive an additional 100 miles just to reach M.B.’s town in search of work.  M.B. and I drove to the nearest reservation, and I learned that the unemployment rate there was nearly 43%, or more than four times the national average.  The reservation also experienced extremely high rates of alcoholism, suicide, and other societal disorders resulting from a general lack of opportunity.  Consequently, M.B.’s shelter was used heavily by the local Native American population.
All of these experiences were very surprising to me.  I had come from a privileged childhood in a middle-class, Midwestern family.  I had never known or worried about where migrant workers slept at night, what struggling families do when their house becomes uninhabitable, or how someone on a reservation might try to find a job.  I had certainly never crossed my street to find frozen corpses in my neighborhood.  But these things, I have learned, are the truth of our communities and of our nation.  Those of us who are fortunate enough to afford and attend college usually have never used a food bank or stayed in a homeless shelter; however, this does not mean that there is no poverty.  This simply means that we have separated ourselves from it and often have become blind to it.
On my tour I witnessed just how the less fortunate live right here in Colorado, and the experience has provoked me to want to know more and do more for those I saw in need.  It has also given me the hope that my words can inspire the same compassion and action in you.  If you would like to volunteer or to learn more about the issues in your community, please call La Puente at 719-587-3499.  I have seen one woman, M.B., stand up and successfully fight to save the lives of the less fortunate in her community; just imagine what you can do for yours.

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