You Can't Get There From Here

The bus stops here.
During last year's State of the City address, Wellington Webb urged the Broncos to give up on Stapleton and instead support a new stadium downtown. Even in these heady economic times, Webb warned, a Stapleton site was too darned expensive. "Where is that money coming from?" he asked. "Do they expect Denver to pay for it?"

Well, yes. The Broncos surrendered on Staple-ton and went on to win the Super Bowl. And so today the mayor is leading cheers for a new football stadium--one largely funded by taxpayers.

Corporate welfare, the cynics call it. A giant gift to a bunch of millionaire athletes and the team's owner, who may have ditched his fur coat but retains his Canadian citizenship.

Welfare--corporate or otherwise--wasn't on the original agenda for the 1998 State of the City address. But just before Webb delivered his speech Wednesday, another group of Denverites gathered in Cook Park to discuss the state of the city in which they live. A city where they've been told they have to make it on their own, but one where that same rule doesn't apply to people who have so much more. A city where every cent counts--that penny could go to the Broncos, or it could go toward buying bread. A city where many workers live paycheck to paycheck. If they make it to the next paycheck: Too often, the fragile fabric of the life they've patched together rips apart.

A city that was suddenly on its own exactly a year ago, when Aid to Families with Dependent Children ended July 1, 1997, and Colorado's TANF law (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, better known as Colorado Works) took over, transferring welfare programs to the 63 Colorado counties. In most of those counties, the commissioners took responsibility. In Denver, Webb agreed to appoint a Denver Welfare Reform Board to design the city's TANF plan.

That was back in October. But as of Tuesday, the eleven-member board had never met. And so a dozen women gathered at Cook Park to address the sorry state of Denver, a city that will bail out millionaires but won't buy bus tokens.

Absent from the protest was Denver's own poster mom for welfare reform. Over the past year, Teri Laughlin, a single mother of three children under the age of five, had been heralded in the media for hauling herself up from the public dole. She'd kept her family together, held down a full-time, $7.04-an-hour job at the Mayor's Office of Employment and Training and had even been appointed to the Denver welfare-reform board.

But Laughlin's climb toward economic freedom wasn't easy. Although she had a job, she relied on RTD for transportation, which proved time-consuming--and cash-devouring. A simple trip to the pediatrician's office could run four hours. "When my kids are sick, I usually have to take half of the day off to get them to their appointment," Laughlin reported. "I have to take leave without pay, which I can't afford to do, so sometimes I don't take them to the doctor when I know they need to go, because I can't afford the time off."

And even when everything worked right--the preschool bus came on schedule, so she could catch her own bus and get to work on time--transportation was still costly. Laughlin could never scrape together the $35 she needed for a monthly pass. Instead, she kept paying cash each day, sometimes $2.50, sometimes more.

The path to independence is full of gaps; lack of transportation is just one of them. But it's a need that's easily identified, one that's almost as easily filled. And so it was the need that People United for Families, PUFF, decided to focus on when the grassroots organization sprang up last January.

Laughlin and other members of PUFF, almost all of them low-income women struggling to make ends meet, began researching Denver's transportation options. With the help of the Colorado Center for Community Development, a group based at the University of Colorado at Denver's architecture and planning school, they pulled their findings into a report titled "Potholes on the Road to Self-Sufficiency." Released in May, the report documented the difficulty poor working families face in this city and the roadblocks erected by the lack of reliable transportation. Of the 67 nonprofits PUFF queried, the majority provided only one-time transportation help--or none at all. Many limited aid to people involved in their programs, which ruled out most working mothers. Only 8 percent gave out monthly bus passes.

MOET was not one of them. After Laughlin was late one too many times, she was reprimanded.

After that, she gave up her job, gave up on this city. Laughlin needed help, and she couldn't find it in Denver. Last month she and her kids packed up and moved to Phoenix, where her sister lives.

The "Potholes" report Laughlin co-authored with Beth Kelly ends with several recommendations: that Webb appoint a member of PUFF to the welfare-reform board; that the board provide transitional transportation assistance for one year for people coming off public assistance; that surplus funds of Denver County welfare programs be available for transportation assistance for the working poor. "All these news stories come out about the surplus," says Kelly. "Give us ten minutes and we'll show you where to spend it."

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