How small-town America handles rural homelessness

By , Special to the Christian Science Monitor

For decades, many Montana communities relied on a cheap, effective remedy for dealing with the state's homeless population: Usher undesirable transients to the local bus depot and buy them a one-way ticket to Butte.

Some of the dispossessed eventually drifted to railroad hubs like Billings or Missoula and hopped the next freight car for the coast. Others found charity at local churches. The rest, social scientists say, simply disappeared when the cold weather arrived, destined to become another town's "problem."

Such "Greyhound therapy" is largely an artifact of the past. But rural homelessness continues to trouble communities and states across America, despite Wall Street's rush to 10000 and the precipitous decline in welfare rolls. Indeed, escalating housing costs and the near-collapse of family farming has left many in the heartland with few places to go. And small towns, with few means for aiding the homeless, are having to find new ways to help those in need.

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"Statistically, fewer Americans are receiving welfare benefits, but that doesn't mean there aren't as many people who still need assistance," says Mary Ann Gleason, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "The plight of the rural homeless has become one of the great social challenges our politicians do not like to talk about."

Hard to track

If the urban homeless are faceless and nameless, homeless advocates say, then the rural homeless are practically invisible. Unlike the street people of New York and San Francisco, who make their presence known in cardboard shanties or panhandle for coins at subway stations, the rural homeless are, more often than not, harder to identify.

"We have no national database to track the rural homeless, in part because it is so difficult," says Gene Summers, a professor in the Department of Rural Sociology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "Most small communities do not have homeless shelters, and a lot of the families are finding temporary shelter with friends and kin rather than living in a pickup truck down by the river. The rural environment helps to disguise the hardship."

Professor Summers and his students are currently conducting a study of rural American counties to pinpoint trends. He says the welfare-reduction numbers, which show some counties reporting between a 20 percent and 50 percent decrease in welfare numbers, can be misleading.

In Kentucky, for instance, Summers's research shows that while counties were reporting a reduction in welfare recipients, food banks were experiencing a 1,000 percent increase in families seeking help.

Factors of homelessness

The primary causes of homelessness are well-documented. They include drug or alcohol addiction, women and children fleeing abusive men, mental-health problems, and the closing of factories that provided primary employment opportunities.

The US Department of Health and Human Services also reports that rural poverty and housing affordability are directly linked. But other factors are now playing more of a role in some places than they have in the past.

In Montana, where only 850,000 people inhabit one of the largest states, a unique quandary is shaping up. State officials

are unsure of what they can do with a rural population that is increasingly poor and elderly. The problem is particularly apparent on Indian reservations and struggling ranching towns in the isolated eastern half of the state.

By the year 2030, Montana will rank third in the nation - behind only Florida and Arizona, with the highest number per capita of senior citizens - says David Young, director of the Montana Office of Rural Health at Montana State University in Bozeman.

Native Americans, Mr. Young says, are hesitant to leave the reservation for senior care facilities in cities, because they lose their community support network. Aging ranch workers, he adds, often have no retirement to count on and stubbornly refuse to seek help.

Meanwhile, on America's Great Plains, the steady disintegration of the family-farm economy, punctuated by farm foreclosures and the emergence of super-farms, has created the opposite problem.

Iowa, renowned for producing students who perform well in national scholastic exams, is now battling a swelling population of homeless children.

Studies show that 56 percent of Iowa's homeless are school-aged children. Two years ago, an estimated 8,000 homeless kids were identified, and in 1998, the number had grown to 9,000, says Ron Noah, a sociology professor at William Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa.

To help, many undergraduates at William Penn are taking part in the school's novel Homeless Center, in which the students tutor kids who have no permanent home. Through it, the students gain real-life contact with the homeless and apply their personal experience toward potential solutions.

Impact of family farm closures

The crisis on family farms, says Professor Noah, is a contributor to Iowa's problem. "No other state in the union has, proportionately, as many homeless kids as Iowa," notes Noah, who oversees the Homeless Center.

"I talk to groups and see people roll their eyes and say, 'If [the homeless] were only willing to work, they wouldn't be in this mess,' " he adds. "But [the critics] don't have any understanding of what's going on. The cost of housing is out of hand, and by the time you pay for health care and gas and put food on the table, the job at McDonald's just doesn't cut it."

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