The jingling of swings from the playground follows Tru Talmage as he slips into the kitchen of his family's third-floor home at Willowbrook Apartments. He emerges from the kitchen proudly clutching a stack of plastic-wrapped cheese slices.
"I'm getting some cheese for everybody," the 4-year-old chirps as he marches for the door.
Laura Barry springs to her feet and catches her blond-headed son before he can leave.
"Tru, we can't afford to feed the neighborhood," she says, managing to sound affectionate and exasperated at the same time.
"I'm just feeding the people at the playground," he replies.
Barry takes the stack, allowing one slice for each of her four kids, and calmly returns to her seat as Tru's cry fills the room like a kettle left to boil. The trade-off between encouraging generosity and requiring practicality goes unspoken as Barry smiles wearily.
"He likes to come up here and feed the neighbors," she explains.
That communal spirit seems natural on a summer afternoon, as kids outside climb on a jungle gym and splash in a nearby pool. Shouts, laughter and music enter through open windows and doors at the apartment community south of downtown Colorado Springs.
There's less exuberance inside. Barry and her husband share a neat apartment with their two younger children, with three beds arranged like puzzle pieces in its single bedroom. The apartment is too small for the whole family; because of health regulations, the two older kids, girls who are 5 and 6, live nearby with Barry's parents.
Money is scarce. The family now lives on the $360 that Barry's husband brings home every two weeks from his job at Jiffy Lube, Barry's earnings from babysitting, and payments from the federal food stamp program.
And those food stamp payments have become variable and unpredictable, for Barry and others. Maggie Morones, the Willowbrook office manager, saw those for her own family stop without explanation early this summer; they re-started only upon intervention from the deputy director at the El Paso County Department of Human Services, the local agency charged with administering the federal program.
The experiences of Barry and Morones cast troubling light on a program whose short-staffing and turnover are rattling families scrambling to find enough food in dangerous economic times.
Getting the 4-1-1
Food stamps used to be actual stamps. Now the "Food Assistance" program has monthly allowances show up on electronic balance transfer (EBT) cards, used much like debit cards.
The federal government foots the bill for assistance, but leaves states with the task of determining eligibility. Most states assume that duty; Colorado, however, imposes its labor- and paper-intensive computer system on counties, requiring them to process applications.
"We're one of only 10 states [where] programs like food stamps are administered at the county level," says Care and Share president and CEO Nicholas Saccaro, who sees many of his food-bank clients also rely on food stamps. That means "county leaders must find the resources."
DHS did manage to avoid brutal rounds of El Paso County budget cuts in the past year, when DHS director Barbara Drake told county commissioners that reductions in services would likely break the law and forfeit millions in state and federal funds. Even so, in a county intolerant of higher taxes and short of cash, officials have struggled to cover costs. A Colorado DHS workload study in 2007 placed El Paso County in the highest of four categories for facing challenges from a high case load and low local tax revenue.
The local DHS office has about 108 technicians across all programs. Some process new applications; others review and verify each family's income over periods of three to six months or longer to confirm they're still eligible. Compared with Denver, Boulder, Arapahoe and other large counties, the local technicians were the busiest last year, averaging 411 cases each.
When the department is fully staffed, 18 of El Paso County's technicians can each be responsible for tracking up to 800 families receiving food stamps or Medicaid and processing their redetermination paperwork. They can have twice as many "cases," since many families receive more than one type of assistance.
The numbers are growing as the economy sours. In May, 15,400 local families were on food assistance, according to Rick Bengtsson, DHS deputy director. That increased to nearly 16,000 by Aug. 1, Bengtsson says.
So it's no surprise that the lobby at the main DHS building on Spruce Street is a busy place on a late summer afternoon. Two women type at computers between separate windows just inside the front door. Asked for help, one answers without looking up: "Have you checked in with the greeter?"
The greeter, at a desk farther back in the lobby, dispenses white or pink numbered tickets, depending on whether visitors need EBT cards, or want to talk with someone about medical, food and other assistance. She looks out at an area filled with plastic chairs that just became bigger after the start of a recent remodel; yellow tape suspended between trash barrels marks where a row of reception desks will sit when the remodel is complete.
Today, the wait will run only 30 minutes to an hour. Come the beginning of each month, the line for new applications (at a neighboring office building) can grow to hours long.
Outside looking in
Last summer, Laura Barry and Michael Talmage's monthly payments amounted to about $360. Then they suddenly stopped, in October. They reapplied repeatedly, each time working through about 30 pages asking for income information and family history, but were turned down.
Ideally, applicants would fill out these pages full of questions about medical debts, monthly bills, assets and sources of income only once, before interviewing with a DHS intake technician to learn if a computer system finds them eligible for benefits. People receiving benefits would be assigned to different DHS workers who process the shorter "redetermination" packets every three to six months to track changes with jobs, housing or expenses that could alter benefits.
It's not clear if Barry and Talmage missed paperwork when they moved last fall or if some other glitch held up their payments. Bengtsson says he's not allowed to discuss individual cases, but says that in general, applications can be turned down for errors reporting income, or paperwork can be missed because a family moves.
The couple struggled to get back into the system. A March 22 letter from DHS explains that an application from January was denied because it was more than 60 days old, with no hint if the lapse was considered to be Barry's fault or the agency's.
When she applied again in the spring, Barry says, she learned the woman who had been her caseworker had long since changed jobs and that her file, in the words of an intake technician, was a "mess." She says her 3-year-old daughter, named Michael after her father, was listed as head of household.
The problems were solved and the application was successful: Payments finally resumed this summer, but at $250 a month. With that assistance, handouts from nearby churches and careful rationing, the family gets by with a diet consisting largely of pasta and canned goods.
But Barry is worried about new upheavals. She says she's never spoken with the technician now assigned to track her case and that she can't get calls returned. After learning through another DHS worker that she's already late with her redetermination paperwork, she's worried that the payments again will stop.
"We're really having a hard time with this," she says.
The turnover issue
Barry and Talmage's story speaks to a factor that aggravates the high case load constant turnover. Four years ago, the state mandated that counties use the Colorado Benefits Management System (CBMS) a data-entry program that can require technicians to enter data on 100 different screens for some cases.
"It's had its challenges," Drake says.
Turnover skyrocketed when the system was adopted, and it's still an issue today.
Three of the 18 technician positions dealing with food stamp and Medicaid redeterminations are now open, and only one person is training to assume part of the load, a process that can take months. That leaves 15 people to do the work of 18, and two of those workers are also new, meaning someone else must verify their work.
Veronica Murphy, one of those 15, is something of a veteran in the department with more than three years' experience. She started in a group of eight to 10 workers; only one of the others is still around, she says.
"It affects all of us [when someone leaves]," she says. "We all have to step up."
Bengtsson says DHS, which when fully staffed counts 415 employees, can see turnover of 20 percent a year, and close to 40 percent for first-year technicians. The work load is partly to blame, but pay is as well: El Paso County technicians start at $11.48 an hour, doing the same work that pays $2 or $3 more per hour in the Denver Metro area and $14.78 an hour in Pueblo.
Arturo Serrano, economic assistance manager for El Paso County DHS, uses a rough diagram on a whiteboard to explain the challenge facing the department. A nearly horizontal bar represents the department's case load, and a diagonal line represents the cases his technicians can process. The line gets close to the bar when fully staffed, but sinks when people leave.
"We can never reach this bar," Serrano says.
Since filling a position and bringing a new employee up to speed can take several months, the department is working on plans to start building a pool of technicians in training to fill gaps when another worker leaves. Bengtsson and Drake know about these gaps, and they explain they are taking other steps to streamline the process, scheduling phone interviews with clients instead of face-to-face interviews to save waiting time and travel expenses.
Drake says staffing changes shouldn't make a difference to clients. But she does admit things are far from perfect.
"It's a complex system," she says. "People need to let us know [if they have problems]."
Carolyn McDole hears about problems. As the executive director of Ecumenical Social Ministries, she runs a food pantry at 201 N. Weber St., and helps people with housing payments, job searches and other needs. She says demand for food assistance is soaring, accounting for much of a 16 percent increase in services offered during the past year.
ESM employees, she says, do hear people talk about delays and eligibility requirements for federal food stamps. But she's not sure if those complaints are becoming more common or if they are a constant given the complex federal rules used to determine benefits.
There is, in fact, no data showing a trend of more El Paso County families missing out on food stamps, but one who's recently encountered her first interruption is Morones, Willowbrook's office manager, who has been receiving food assistance since she moved to Colorado Springs in 1998.
Those payments suddenly stopped in June, and Morones called to find out why. She says she got no answer the first time, and spent 90 minutes on hold the next day before a technician said her redetermination paperwork was being processed.
Visiting the office in mid-August, she received the same answer.
"I've never had problems with the food stamp office," she says. She says a DHS employee told her she was approved but there was a delay processing her paperwork.
Morones' food assistance has varied over the years, but most recently came to $144 a month, freeing some of her income for bills and other expenses. Her job pays $10.50 an hour, and she lives in a rent-controlled, three-bedroom apartment with her two teenage daughters and a grandson. She's taking classes at Pikes Peak Community College so she can work in a medical office.
She's matter-of-fact about the missed payments.
"I'm managing," she says, though she's watching her credit card debt balloon to $5,000.
In late August, at the urging of a friend, Morones explains her situation in an e-mail to Bengtsson. He investigates and she quickly receives full payment for the missed months. She doesn't seem bothered by the lack of explanation what happened.
"I'm kind of happy I have money to get some decent groceries," she says.
What if ...
Sitting next to his wife in the family's living room, Michael Talmage says food stamp payments do help when they arrive.
But the paperwork, long lines and endless phone calls are making the program's safety net which they've depended on since their first daughter was born in 2001 seem frayed.
Both adults grew up locally. Barry left home at 13 during a rocky period with her parents, and later dropped out of Palmer High School. Talmage also grew up here before being sent to live with an uncle in Texas at age 14.
They started dating when Barry was 19, and their relationship has endured tough times as they lived for stretches in a Manitou Springs motel room or out of a Chevy Cavalier given to them. While living in an apartment in western Colorado Springs, their electricity was cut off for three months, forcing them to run an extension cord to a neighboring apartment each night so they could turn on the lights.
Work options have been limited. Neither finished high school, and Barry gets regular migraines and suffers back pain. Talmage, who just turned 29, was born with only one normal arm; his right "hand" is a bulge just below his elbow with only two miniature fingers extending from opposite sides.
"I've never been able to get my head above water," Talmage says, making a slicing motion with his left hand over his right.
Talmage has always loved cars. In Texas, he fixed up an outlaw mini-sprint race car and competed at speeds well over 100 mph before his driving career ended with a crash that still has him limping from pain in his left leg.
He now changes oil at a Jiffy Lube, but the work has taken its toll on his good arm. At night, his hand sometimes seizes up, and he has numbness in his fingers. Without thinking, he explains, he'll sometimes use them to flip sizzling strips of bacon.
That, however, is a luxury the family seldom indulges. Their cupboards are nearly bare except for boxes of spaghetti and macaroni and cheese. Two weeks after Tru tried to hand out cheese slices, the fridge is down to a stack of bologna, a lump of ground beef and a few condiments.
Despite his disability, Michael Talmage took classes at Pikes Peak Community College two years ago, aiming to become a bounty hunter or to get into law enforcement. The load from work and school was too much, and Talmage dropped out. PPCC has an order to garnish his wages for that unpaid bill, but the school is now waiting in line: About $250 comes out of each paycheck to cover medical expenses from his recent bout with kidney stones.
Unlike her husband, Barry hasn't been able to pass the GED. When she does, she wants to become a heating, air conditioning and ventilation equipment technician.
When that might happen is uncertain. Talmage uses his good arm to flip through a stack of bills several inches thick.
"I started out in the hole," he says without a hint of bitterness.
Long hours changing oil leave his hand aching, but he sees it as the only way to put food on the table.
Talmage says he feels his only option right now is to hope his body continues to cooperate. Glancing sideways at his wife, he wonders:
"What happens to her if something happens to my hand?"
Calculations to determine eligibility for federal food stamps and other assistance programs are complex and are governed in Colorado by the Colorado Benefits Management System, or CBMS (cdhs.state.co.us/cbms).
Information about food stamps and general income guidelines for the program can be found at fns.usda.gov/fsp.