Times tough for area single-mom families

Area nonprofits not seeing same trends as recent national report

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SHAWN GUST/Press Elizabeth Gonzalez, 37, holds her two-year-old son Yomar Lopez Wednesday as while looking out the front door of their small home, a St. Vincent de Paul housing project in Coeur d'Alene. A recent report sites that there are more single mothers in Kootenai County with jobs and fewer children in poverty status, a report that local outreach organizations dispute.

COEUR d'ALENE - Living situations could be improving for Kootenai County families, according to numbers reported by a national data collection organization.

But they're probably getting worse, based on indicators from local nonprofits and agencies.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation released its annual Kids Count report on Wednesday, showing that in the late 2000s, the county saw a jump in single mothers with jobs and a decrease of impoverished children.

But there isn't such a positive pattern now, said Jeff Conroy, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul.

"I haven't seen that," Conroy said.

According to the count, the number of single working mothers with young children in Kootenai County increased from 1,786 to 1,953 between 2008 and 2009.

Kids under 5 living in poverty also dropped nearly 10 percent between '07 and '08, from 2,485 to 1,717.

The data also show that children on food stamps in the county rose from 6,517 in 2008 to 8,103 in 2009.

Regional Kids Count spokespeople couldn't be reached for comment.

The foundation's data is collected from federal statistics agencies. The stats tend to be a few years old due to the time necessary to correlate the mass of data.

Many families are struggling in Kootenai County, Conroy said.

"We're seeing a huge increase in homeless families, homeless moms with children," he said.

Family homelessness rose by 73 percent from 2009 to 2010, he pointed out.

"That's the foreclosure dynamic we're getting into," he said. "They can't afford homes, and rents are going up, as well."

Many women and mothers who seek assistance are victims of domestic violence, Conroy added, circumstances he believes are spurred by the stress of failing to make ends meet.

"They've left their spouse or are getting out of a bad situation," he said. "We're seeing women who need help making rent, who need help finding housing, who need help with utility bills."

Emily Simnitt, spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, said the number of folks on food stamps statewide has increased every year since 2008.

There were 20,507 individuals on food stamps in Kootenai County at the beginning of this year, Simnitt said, adding that about half of that tends to be children.

"We know that many people who have been coming in for food stamps in the last few years have never been receiving assistance before, which is directly related to the economic downturn," she said.

There hasn't been a decrease in families applying for the Women, Infants and Children program, said Panhandle Health District spokeswoman Cynthia Taggart.

For the past few years, about 3,800 low-income families in Kootenai County have entered the program that provides food vouchers and health guidance for newborns and toddlers, she said.

"Vouchers can be $75 a month," Taggart said. "For some families, that can be a substantial amount."

The Kids Count is a national and state-by-state effort to track the status of children across the U.S.

In the annual report's ranking of states by children's well being, Idaho was listed 22nd overall, up from 25 in 2000.

Since Elizabeth Gonzalez and her three youngest children moved to Coeur d'Alene from Irving, Texas, this year, she said, her days have been consumed with obtaining assistance and meals from food banks.

"We're doing it little by little," said Gonzalez, adding that her mother in the area didn't have room for her and her kids, ages 2, 4 and 6.

SVDP has put them in a home until transitional housing opens up, Gonzalez added. The nonprofit has allowed her to work nights at the thrift store while she seeks therapy for mental issues.

Getting by is stressful, even now that her husband has joined them and is job hunting, she said.

"It's a lot at once, and with school coming up for the children," said Gonzalez, 37.

Still, she's optimistic.

There are more resources here to get folks on their feet than other states she has lived in, she said.

And she's just determined to provide for her children.

"We're hoping to stay here," Gonzalez said, adding that they're also counting on help from the federal Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. "We're pretty confident that with their help, that within the next four or five months, we will have our own place."

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