Poverty Swells in Denver Suburbs

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[Map Credit: Colo. Dept. of Local Affairs - State Demography Office]

It’s no surprise that poverty is a growing problem, but it may be surprising that it’s growing the most in the suburbs. A recent report shows the suburban poor population in the Denver area has doubled in last decade, but services have been slow to follow.

Struggling families have been moving away from Denver and into places like Aurora, Northglenn, or like Jessica Gonzalez, to Westminster. Gonzalez is a part-time social worker who also goes to college, living paycheck to paycheck.

“It’s not enough,” said Gonzalez, “because we still don’t have the money that we need to have to do the things that we need to do to pay the bills that we need to pay to get my son the things that he needs."

Her husband Carlos Garcia is unemployed and also going to college. He said he has applied for so many jobs without a response that he asked someone to look at his resume to see if something was wrong. He says he’s even more stressed than Jessica.

“The male’s supposed to be the guy who holds down the house,” said Garcia. “For me to see my wife working and going to school and almost on the verge of tears, you know because she’s so stressed, she doesn’t know how we’re going to get by, you know, it really eats at me inside.”

Being poor in the suburbs presents unique challenges for Carlos and Jessica. The social services they need, like housing programs and food pantries, tend to be spread over wide areas. Also, they have only one unreliable car, so they often have to use the bus, and service gets spotty the farther you get from Denver.

“That’s how it is out here in the suburbs,” said Gonzalez. “The buses aren’t close by.”

Elizabeth Kneebone with the Brookings Institution says that is part of the challenge.

“We have this mismatch between where services are and where the residents who need the services live,” Kneebone said.

Using U.S. Census records, Kneebone and her colleagues have tracked the growth in suburban poverty, which reached a tipping point nationlly in 2005, when for the first time more poor people lived in the suburbs than the city.

Kneebone says low-income residents move to the suburbs for quality of life issues, just like anyone else. Still, she says resources to deal with poverty are largely funneled to big cities.

“So there’s still often a disparity, a gap in the funding, even as need is growing rapidly in outlying communities,” Kneebone said.

She said charities in Denver attracted about four times as many grant dollars than charities in the suburbs in the late 2000’s.

Teva Sienicki is all too familiar with that phenomenon. She’s the CEO of a Westminster charity called Growing Home.

“We’ve got a problem here and we need more resources to try to scale up to address this,” Sienicki said.

She understands why dollars and policies aren’t aimed at the suburbs. Even she was skeptical about the plight of the suburban poor before she took her current job.

“I have to be honest, said Sienicki. “When I first heard about this opportunity for this job, working in the suburbs, I did wonder how much of a need there was out here.”

Over the decade she has been at Growing Home, she’s seen the need for services climb every year. She says more people need more services for longer periods of time.

Westminster resident Carlos Garcia can understand that people may wonder why he lives in the suburbs. He grew up in Denver and would make fun of friends who moved away.

“We’d just clown on them, 'cause they’re moving further away from the hood, from the west side," said Garcia. “But, you know, I grew up, and I see that I really like it out here, and it’s crazy, the further I move away, I think, the better it is. It’s quiet. I don’t have friends rolling up and knocking on my door because I live so far away.”

He and his wife would like to stay in the suburbs, so their child will have a quiet, safe place to grow up. They’re finding, however, that a lot of the affordable housing options are, not surprisingly, in Denver.