Humanizing the hard times 

Every day, without fail, people send us letters. Nearly all are pure philosophy: right or left, humorous or melancholy, hopeful or cynical, deep or shallow.

But they usually aren't about real people in our midst. Then came a late-night note from Gordon Riley.

You don't know Riley. He's a 48-year-old librarian who has lived here since 2000. He's also living with the worst fate of this rotten economy, day after exasperating day.

He's unemployed. Behind on his rent. Slipping through the cracks because his circumstances don't easily fit the new stimulus package.

We constantly hear about the latest gloomy statistics, the latest misspent stimulus money, the latest mass layoffs. Always numbers. Hardly ever about actual human suffering, or anybody like Gordon.

He doesn't want people to feel sorry for him. He's not interested in statistics, and he's tired of politicians who sound compassionate but don't respond.

All he wants is a job. He's been out of work since September 2007, when the local branch of CollegeAmerica cut back before the slowdown became the recession. Despite his master of library science degree, and abundant experience, Gordon has encountered an incredible string of misfortune.

He came here from Pennsylvania, having established himself as a trend-setter among school librarians using technology, after being recruited at a national conference to work at District 11's Mitchell High School. One year later, he fell victim to the new No Child Left Behind law, which required librarians to have teaching credentials as well. He later went to Denver Public Schools, working at an elementary during the day and going to school at night in a two-year program. Halfway through, amid DPS budget cuts, his day job was eliminated, taking away the chance for a teaching license. He landed at CollegeAmerica, and all was well until enrollment went down. Then, one day, he got the pink slip.

He's since been through two rounds of unemployment benefit extensions, but they've run out. Now it appears Colorado could qualify for Riley and others like him to receive another 13 weeks of assistance, but not unless the state's February unemployment numbers confirm a three-month average over 6 percent. Those numbers were due March 11, then delayed until March 27.

Meanwhile, Riley applies for job after job, but nothing happens. One local school district has had several openings (allowing him to try again for the teaching license), but each time a licensed teacher has decided to try being a librarian, which takes priority. Other times, he's been told he was overqualified. And back problems limit him from pursuing more physically demanding jobs.

In his letter, describing the plight for him and others, he says, "We'll be homeless before the economy (hopefully) starts turning around next year. We don't have time to wait for the stimulus to work. My dog will starve, even if I can get food at a soup kitchen and sleep on the street."

He sends e-mails to congressional leaders and gets auto-responses.

"It's not like I can pick up and leave. I'm financially stuck here now, with no money to relocate," Riley says by phone. So he wonders if another chance might come along. Somewhere. Somehow. He also hopes he and his wife can get back together. (They're separated.) But not this way, without sufficient income to get by.

"I have good skills and good experience, but I have to admit that I've pretty much lost hope," he says. "I don't think it's very likely that I will get a job ever again. And if it means losing benefits, then my apartment ..."

Now his voice cracks with emotion.

"When I pray to God, I know there's gotta be millions in worse situations than I am," he says. "I'm humbled and embarrassed, asking God to help me. I have friends, but they're all hurting, too. ... Other people I know say, 'I wish I could save you.' But nobody can at this point. Only God.

"Every morning when I wake up, I say, 'This is gonna be the best day of the rest of my life. Try to get the most out of this day.' ... If this next extension comes through, I'll have some more good days."

And if it doesn't, despite that master's degree and years of good jobs, Gordon Riley soon might be homeless in Colorado Springs.

Not as another statistic, but as a real-life tragedy.



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