Erica Christoffer is a multimedia journalist and contributing editor with REALTOR® Magazine.
Getting a Grip on Rural Homelessness
REALTOR® Chet Choman leads a nonprofit that helps one out of three people in an area larger than the state of Massachusetts.
August 30, 2018
A surprising number of people living in Colorado’s San Luis Valley use firewood as their only source of heat. Despite the area’s hauntingly beautiful yet barren landscape, it’s the poorest region in the state, with roughly a quarter of the residents living below the federal poverty line. REALTOR® Chet Choman operates his company Colorado Realty and Land Co. here, out of an old repurposed gas station near the train tracks. It’s a metaphor for his persona. He’s humble and soft-spoken on the outside, yet incredibly resourceful with a servant heart on the inside. And the one thing he’ll never tire speaking about is La Puente Home.
The simplest way to describe La Puente is as a homeless shelter. But today it’s much more than that, largely because of Choman, a co-founder and member of the organization’s board of directors for nearly 40 years. “He really believes in the dignity, opportunity, and life value of having housing,” says Lance Cheslock, La Puente’s executive director. “For REALTORS®, there’s a fulfillment in watching an individual or family find housing, but Chet gets more passionate when he helps people who are having trouble.”
Choman understands homelessness firsthand. He was born inside a displaced persons camp in Germany right after World War II. His parents had spent five years in a concentration camp working in the fields, and another five in the displaced persons camp until immigrating to the U.S. in 1951. They were sponsored by a family in exchange for two years of farm work. “When you have that background, you have a sensitivity toward homeless” people, Choman says. “[La Puente] started off with nothing, much like my folks did. But it has blossomed over the past 40 years. Now with a $2 million budget, so much of that is the help of volunteers and community support—people helping people.”
Moving a Community Out of Poverty
In 1979, eight years into his real estate career, Choman was contacted by a local nun after two people froze to death during a severe winter. Choman and four others met to address the area’s housing problems and realized they had to get organized. They each chipped in $5 so they’d have enough to open a checking account for the organization that would become one of the first rural homeless shelters in the country.
“Having been born into homelessness myself gave me a certain sensitivity to the issue. I make a living selling homes to people are capable of buying a home, but I feel a personal responsibility to help people who can’t buy a home or who are struggle to find housing.”—Chet Choman
The San Luis Valley is a sprawling, flat desert juxtaposed with 360 degrees of mountain views. The isolated region’s main commercial business is agriculture. Farmers primarily grow potatoes, alfalfa, and barley, but they often struggle; commodity prices are sometimes so low that they can’t make it through the off-season. The median household income in Alamosa County in 2016 was $32,385, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which is nearly half the average income statewide.
To meet the persistent need in the valley, La Puente has grown beyond the 45-bed shelter that opened its doors in 1982. La Puente now serves about 16,000 people annually—that’s one out of every three people in a six-county area larger than the state of Massachusetts. “A founder sometimes has problems changing things, but Chet has always been open to new ideas,” says Cheslock.
The first addition was Adelante in 1991, La Puente’s family program that helps parents secure housing, find jobs, and access life skills and financial training. The organization helps folks who live paycheck to paycheck by means of rental, utility, medical, and crisis assistance. PALS Children’s Program, founded in 1997, is a licensed after-school and summer children’s program that focuses on children who’ve experienced instability, abuse, or poverty. Regarding both expansions, Choman says, it was important for the charity to move beyond just offering a place to stay: “We’ve found that with homelessness, you can come up with Band-Aids and take care of immediate needs, but often the needs are much greater.”
Easing Struggles of Remote Living
A long string of bad luck is what brought Keith Smith and his daughter Zoe to La Puente. Smith, who served in the military, including 18 months in Iraq, was pursuing a degree when the 2013 government shutdown halted his housing benefits. Late on his rent, Smith was evicted. After being ticketed for not having car insurance, he lost his vehicle. He and Zoe, who was 6 at the time, backpacked roughly 250 miles from the Denver area to Grand Junction, Colo. Smith eventually saved enough money to buy a truck and camper. They ended up in Alamosa, not far from La Puente, and he was able to purchase 40 acres of land for $1,700. Not long after, their vehicle broke down and he was running low on supplies.
Smith was discovered by La Puente’s Rural Outreach program, where volunteers drive into remote areas to spread the word about their services. While staying at La Puente housing, the staff offered him a job as property manager. Now, they’re back on their land with Smith’s new wife, Jen, raising chickens and renting campsites on their property. He’s also started a web design business. “La Puente is comprehensive in providing what you need to become self-sufficient,” Smith says. “It allows the participants to improve their station.”
Today, La Puente also has 15 small food pantries across their service area, including one in a town of only 160 people. The pantries are largely stocked by volunteers who pluck remnant potatoes, carrots, and other stray produce left behind after harvest on participating farms. La Puente operates two enterprises to help fund their programs—a thrift store with three locations and a coffee shop—all staffed by volunteers and clients. The businesses net about $100,000 a year, according to Choman. While the rest of the funding—more than $2 million annually—comes from individual, corporate, and foundation donations, Cheslock says it’s important to have a public presence. “We model the values we hope to put out there, to build compassion for the displaced as one community,” he says.
A Passion for People
A significant share of La Puente’s clients live in what Cheslock describes as “invisible communities” that are void of any safety net.” Many have purchased land in extremely remote, isolated reaches of the valley where there are no public utilities, phone service, or postal service. Winter snow storms can make roads impassable for days.
La Puente volunteers have discovered more than 250 dwellings that lack running water or are otherwise unfit for human habitation, often made from old camping trailers or storage sheds and cobbled together using scraps of plywood, Cheslock says. Many without electricity receive firewood assistance through La Puente’s Rural Outreach initiative. “Some have a vision for homesteading and getting away from the craziness of the world. But the bare bones of life out here is really hard,” Cheslock says, noting that many such residents were disabled veterans. “No one says ‘poor me’; they say, ‘look what I’m building up.’”
In 1985, Choman and his wife built a 32-unit apartment building for low-income renters and later purchased a hotel and converted the rooms into small apartments. Both functioned as unofficial overflow housing from La Puente. Some residents paid rent; others didn’t or couldn’t, but Choman never turned anyone away. “Typically, homelessness is viewed as an urban problem,” he says. “I found myself essentially selling homes to people who are capable, but I found myself wondering, ‘What about the people who are in need?’”