Creating a brand new ending

The Bridge Emergency Shelter recently spearheaded the Vulnerability Survey Index as part of a national initiative, Community Solutions, and statewide plan from Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office. The goal of this work is to identify the needs of our most vulnerable populations. Visit www.coloradocounts.org for more information about the program.

It’s vital for nonprofit organizations like the Bridge to have real numbers as we seek funding from government, private foundations and community members. It makes sense to quantify the needs of vulnerable community members and participating in this survey gives us the opportunity to gather reliable numbers.

The 40-question survey was developed as a means to identify the risk factors for folks in our community whose current situations are detrimental to their wellbeing. Unstable housing, employment status, health conditions, and involvement with the legal system were some of the areas addressed in the survey. Teams of volunteers surveyed 114 individuals from Montezuma and Dolores counties. The survey was conducted at a variety of locations in Dove Creek, Cahone and Cortez. While the week of July 16 was the main thrust, there will be a continued effort to survey families, youth and others. The Bridge is very grateful to all who participated in our initial survey.

The results may not be surprising; they are nonetheless enlightening and a great reminder that it takes a wide variety of organizations and individuals to reduce homelessness, improve health and lessen hunger. Four themes become evident when reviewing the results.

First is the correlation between length of time an individual is in unstable housing and his or her health. The longer someone is without stable housing, the more his or her health deteriorates. The tipping point appears to occur between 2 to 3 years. People who described themselves as homeless for less than 2 years are still in relatively decent health. After 3 years in unstable housing they begin developing a wide variety of acute and chronic health and behavioral issues. Liver disease, diabetes, kidney disease, respiratory disorders, HIV/AIDS, and substance abuse move from chronic to acute. These individuals utilize the emergency room because they don’t have access to a private physician or transportation to the clinics in Mancos, Dove Creek, Towaoc or Shiprock N.M.

A second correlating factor to vulnerability is employment and education levels. Nearly three-quarters, 70 percent, of respondents did not complete high school, though some did go on to complete a GED. Twenty-three percent of those surveyed had college degrees or advanced certification in a variety of trades, yet have not been able to find stable employment. Without stable employment, the ability to have housing, food and medical care become more difficult to maintain.

The third contributing element to vulnerability is lack of health insurance or access to health care. The survey revealed many individuals have no health coverage. Twenty-five percent of respondents have no Medicare or Medicaid coverage. What is striking is the number of hospitalizations and emergency room visits for this population. In Cortez there were 41 emergency room visits in the last three months by those surveyed. In the last year, there were 36 in-patient hospitalizations.

The fourth outstanding factor that leads to vulnerability could be heard as respondents shared childhood stories of a parent’s death, divorce, physical and emotional abuse, mental and physical illnesses, or “that’s just how it was.” These stories highlight families in dire need of medical and mental health resources. Many are families in need of guidance to break the generational bonds of poverty where there are often children raising children.

The early results of the Vulnerability Index Survey show us that a single organization can’t address all the issues faced by our vulnerable populations. To move individuals to stable housing, to help ensure medical care, elevate education levels, to break the cycle of poverty takes a wide variety of organizations and individuals. Local non-governmental organizations see clients daily who are in need of resources that include safe housing, food, clothing and routine medical care. The survey illustrates the importance of increased collaboration among all our local human service organization.

The first results of this Vulnerability Index Survey may look gloomy but there is a bright future to this effort. The results of the survey are available to local entities so that fundraising efforts can reflect accurate numbers. Conducting this survey will put our corner of the state on the map to describe our vulnerable populations both at the state and national levels. I hope that we can work together to see fewer kids leaving school before graduating, fewer cases of child abuse, physical and mental health care available to all our vulnerable populations, more people finding ways to access stable housing, fewer individuals in the legal system, and increased employment.

The survey process and results bring to mind a quote a friend shared with me not long ago. I think it’s pertinent here. “Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.” (Carl Bard)

Join us in making “a brand new ending” for those at-risk in our community. We have a variety of volunteer opportunities at The Bridge Emergency Shelter and the Cortez Day Labor Center. Surveying will continue this fall and we need volunteers to help with the collection process. To learn more about the shelter or to help with surveys please contact me at ShelterManager@TheBridgeShelter.org or (970) 565-9808.

Donna Boyd is manager of the Bridge Emergency Shelter.