The Face of Hunger

Colorado is the 16th-wealthiest state in the nation. So why are so many of our neighbors still having trouble putting food on the table?

September 2007

Susan Silva
Personal caretaker, Alamosa

Susan Silva opened the door of her Alamosa trailer home to find a social services worker with a worried expression. "Lenny is showing up at school pretty hungry," the caseworker said, referring to Silva's brother, afflicted with Down syndrome, chronic seizures, and crippling arthritis. With deceased parents, no job, and a meager home in a destitute area, Silva was simply thankful that someone had noticed. A sheaf of paperwork later, Lenny began receiving disability checks; years later, combined with a small sum Silva makes as Lenny's personal care provider, their joint monthly income comes to $991—enough to qualify for $200 worth of food stamps but not nearly sufficient for a healthy diet. "I don't even drink milk," Silva says. "I gave it up so Lenny would get the proper nutrition. Through the years I've eaten poorly so he could be strong and beat his health."

Silva, 43, took charge of Lenny 22 years ago when her parents became ill. She returned home to Alamosa from Denver, where she'd been working as a cashier at Elitch Gardens and waitressing at Denny's, to care for her struggling family. After her parents died, and without help from seven brothers who were scattered between Colorado, California, and prison, she moved the family mobile home from a farm plot in the country to an impoverished trailer park near town. She and Lenny were on their own. "I tried putting applications in everywhere, from the mushroom farm to Kmart, and I couldn't get work anywhere," she says.

Lenny's condition worsened with age, making work for Silva impossible anyway. Doctors said he wouldn't live to see 30; now 39, he requires full-time medical home care, and the costs have piled up. It's the unforeseen expenses, such as a recent blown car engine, that really take a toll. "That drained us of everything we had for a few months," Silva says. "When you're not prepared, you end up depending on the food bank. By the end of the month it's pretty tough."

Until Lenny's recent hospitalization, the pair ate lunch at a homeless shelter every day, where Silva shares her humble life with those less fortunate than herself. "We've met people whose time is up staying there, and we let them stay with us a night or two," she says. "It's kind of like a campout. They need the help." Without money to get three meals a day for herself and Lenny, not to mention a glass of milk, Silva is the first to open her trailer door to the struggling wanderers of dust-blown southern Colorado.