Chance are, most of us who live in cities see homeless people frequently. They’re sitting in doorways, spare changing people on the street, carrying their belongings around in backpacks and small suitcases, and have a lost look on their face.
But the problem extends far beyond the city limits. In fact, roughly 10% of the nation’s homeless population is located in rural areas, far from sight. As a result, the rural homeless are the unseen, invisible, part of a national problem.
Lacking access to shelters or group homes, they sleep in the woods, at campgrounds or in cars, and inside abandoned farm buildings. Many more live in dilapidated homes or are doubled up with other struggling families, at constant risk of becoming homeless.
Claude Millerman is one of them.
“I sleep where I can,” he said. “Sometimes it’s in a barn that no one is using, sometimes it’s in my car. I can find places.”
Millerman is one of more than 75,000 rural people officially counted as homeless although activists say the number is likely three times larger – as is the case for all homeless figures. A 58-year old widower in Indiana, the farm Millerman had worked for more than 30 years was seized by a bank in early spring leaving him without a roof over his head.
“I stayed with my daughter for a while,” he explains, “but she has a mister” – he meant husband – “and three kids and they live in a trailer. There wasn’t room for me so when the weather turned warm, I moved out.”
Worse Than Cities
Homelessness, poverty and hunger are an even greater problem in rural America than in metropolitan areas.
While the national poverty rate is around 13%, it’s more than 15% in rural areas and is a primary cause of homelessness. Even more disturbing is that roughly one-in-five rural children now live in poverty, up by three full percentage points from the first year of George W. Bush’s administration. The Census Bureau notes that the median income for families in rural areas is under $41,000, compared to over $51,800 in cities. This helps explain why 189 of the 200 poorest counties in America are rural.
“Lots of folks around here are poor, many are either homeless or close to it and a lot of us use food banks,” observed Barbara Honstock, who doesn’t want her location identified but lives in a small town in a state heavily reliant on agriculture. “I’d guess that at least half the county is either on some sort of assistance or needs it but there’s not enough money.”
She said people cope by relying on relatives or friends, but that carries its own uncertainties.
“When we lost our home, we lived for a year in my in-law’s cellar,” Honstock recalls. Now, her family shares a home with another family and is worried because “they’re living right on the borderline so if their place goes, I don’t know what we’ll do.”
In fact, access to services is a major problem for the rural homeless. The National Alliance To End Homelessness reported a key difference between rural and urban homelessness is that there are fewer resources available to help people in rural areas. Moreover, there’s less affordable housing, less availability of health care and public transit is all but non-existent.
A study by the University of Iowa School of Nursing found that “The inability to access health and dental care was reported by half of the participants” in the study. Moreover, the rural homeless suffer higher rates of illness and accident compared to the urban homeless.
So getting by is a daily battle filled with deciding between bad options. Honsock’s children get some state assistance and the family is eligible for food stamps but she adds, “We need the food bank, too, but it’s a 45-minute drive each way. That’s a lot of gas every week. We need the money for other things but we need the food, too.”
It wouldn’t take much money to solve the rural homeless problem. For example, the US Interagency Council On Homelessness did a six month study in rural Oregon and found it costs far less to provide decent housing in rural areas than to allow the problem to fester.
The savings amounts to an average of $1,348 per person annually. When direct costs are broken down, the results are mind-boggling: Shelter expenses drop by 99%, emergency room costs by 14% and ambulance transportation fees by 32%. Moreover, because a disproportionate number of homeless people have run-ins with the law, incarceration expenses fell by a whopping 95%.
“Whenever I hear a politician say there isn’t enough money, I want to scream at my television,” one activist in Kansas told me. “It costs government a fortune to take care of these people already. Why not spend less and do something positive for them?”
A study similar to the one in Oregon came up with comparable findings in Maine. While the Homeless Research Institute (discovered that rural housing costs are somewhat higher in rural areas, the cost increases are more than offset by reductions in emergency shelter expenses and health care.
Todd Ruggalo, who was homeless for six months in rural, southwestern Minnesota after losing his job in 2008, couldn’t agree more.
“I needed help with everything. Food, a place to stay, a doctor when I got really sick,” he says. “Who paid for that? The government. It would have cost a lot less to give me an old house to fix up and a job than to pay for everything I needed.”