Small towns confront an urban problem

On a wintry Thursday afternoon, as the thermometer at the First Banking Center registers a chilling 13 degrees F., 18-year-old Brian Griffeth has no idea where he'll spend the night. Three other families, including a husband and wife with two children and a young couple with a baby, face the same challenge. Within an hour, all four call the only place in town serving homeless people - a community center called Love Inc. Their messages boil down to a single, urgent plea: Find us a place to sleep.

"Usually we get one call like this a day," says Mary Quick, a staff member. "It's just unreal to get four." Such calls reflect a sobering new reality for small-town America. Homelessness, widely regarded as an urban problem, is creeping into rural areas, but without the services available in cities. Small towns typically have no shelters and few social workers. That leaves churches, community groups, and volunteers to fill the void.

Here in southern Wisconsin, where tiny towns carry pastoral names like Pleasant Prairie and Honey Creek, few expect this kind of destitution. Sleeping under bridges or in open farm fields? It can't happen here.

But it does. Small towns become magnets, drawing people from a four- or five- county area. In Burlington (pop. 25,000) and elsewhere in the Midwest, the "hidden homeless" are overwhelmingly white. Among those seeking help from Love Inc., most are single mothers. Five percent are two-parent families. Ten percent are men.

For Mr. Griffeth, a slight, brown-haired teenager, the road to homelessness began years ago. To escape an abusive father, he says, he slept at friends' houses, in his brother's car, even in a tree house. Now, too old for foster care and unable to afford an apartment, he's run out of friends willing to give him a bed. "This whole week I've been wondering what I'm going to do if I can't find anyplace to stay," says Griffeth, who works at McDonald's.

In Illinois, as in Wisconsin, stereotypes about the homeless abound. "The picture people have is of a single man, drug-addicted or mentally ill, living under Wacker Drive [in Chicago]," says Matthew Hanafee, executive director of the Illinois Coalition to End Homelessness. But the average age of homeless adults is 25. Women with children and men with families make up more than half of the 180,000 homeless people in Illinois. One-third of the homeless are children.

Many who lose their homes hold jobs. But obstacles loom - from cars that don't start in the cold to sick children who need parents to stay home. "They lose their jobs very quickly," says Judy Morrow, executive director of Love Inc. "Their résumé shows the job-jumping, and they can't get hired." A weak economy makes jobs still more precarious. Without paychecks, bills pile up; eviction notices arrive. With no health insurance, debts mount.

Stringent welfare policies also take their toll, Ms. Morrow notes. Under Wisconsin's welfare-to-work program, thousands of people have found jobs and moved off the public dole. But many of those who couldn't find work, or were left jobless as the economy contracted, now lack state aid to lean on. Previously, Morrow explains, "families that were trying had a roof over their head and food. Now there's absolutely nothing coming into the home."

And then there are the personal failings. "People don't always understand that the consequences of their decisions are going to leave them cold and in the dark," Morrow says. "We have to be compassionate and caring and tough, all at the same time." She and her staff must also be inventive in finding beds. With no shelter in town, they turn to a local motel or find residents willing to take in strangers.

Twenty-five miles south of Burlington, in McHenry County, Ill., seven churches have banded together to offer another solution: Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS). Each church opens its doors to homeless people one night a week, October through April. The McHenry County PADS is one of 18 unaffiliated PADS groups in Illinois and southern Wisconsin.

"Churches are the only places some communities will let provide shelter," says Mr. Hanafee. "They are constitutionally protected in doing it." The PADS churches' mission is to keep people from freezing to death, says Jack Nichols, director of the McHenry County PADS. In McHenry County, the United Way contributes 10 percent and the federal government another 10 percent. Foundations, businesses, churches, and individuals supply the rest.

For 15 years, Bethany Lutheran Church in Crystal Lake (pop. 25,000), Ill., has welcomed the homeless on Sunday nights. A large bequest recently enabled members to add on a community room, where 45 people can sleep and eat - and use a washer and dryer, showers, and large bathrooms. During the night, volunteers wash clothes and pack lunches. In the morning, they serve breakfast. On a recent Sunday, 45 homeless and low-income people came for dinner, and 39 spent the night. Nearly 100 locals take turns bringing food.

But overnight shelter is not enough. "There's no place for the homeless to go during the day," Nichols says. Some of them head for the library, others for bars.

Soon a new day center in nearby Woodstock, being built by McHenry County PADS, will give transients a place to relax, talk to counselors, do laundry, and store their belongings. "How can you go out and interview for a job when you've got to carry everything in a grocery bag?" Nichols asks. The $1.1 million center, funded largely through contributions, is scheduled to open in May.

Some homeless advocates insist that churches cannot be permanent solutions. Donna Bumpus, executive director of the Racine Emergency Shelter Task Force, notes that some congregations want their churches back. "I don't blame them," she says.

In Burlington, construction began this month on the first shelter, located above the thrift shop Morrow runs to sustain her agency. Yet even shelters represent only a stopgap measure. Noting a dramatic rise in housing costs in the last 10 to 15 years, Mr. Hanafee says, "The federal government must realize we need affordable-housing policies." He fears that funds for low-income housing will be cut as federal and state budgets face red ink.

He also emphasizes the importance of a living wage. "You can still find $7 an hour jobs, but you can't find $7 an hour housing." In Crystal Lake, an average one-bedroom apartment costs $700 a month. A minimum-wage worker in the state, earning $5.15 an hour, can afford only $268 a month in rent, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

Karen Buckner of Crystal Lake knows the tenuous nature of housing. Five years ago she was living with her daughter and son-in-law, caring for her grandson while they worked. Then her son-in-law ran off, taking all the money. Penniless and homeless, the women sought help from the Salvation Army and a transitional shelter run by PADS.

"Without their help, I don't know where my daughter and I would have been," Ms. Buckner says. After her daughter returned to work, they moved into their own apartment. Now Buckner works as transportation manager for PADS, driving homeless and low-income residents to shelters, jobs, and appointments.

For others, living arrangements remain fragile. Griffeth lives in a rooming house, found with help from Morrow and his former foster father, Gary Reed. He wants to earn a GED certificate and move beyond dead-end jobs. Looking wistful, Griffeth says, "So many friends of mine have everything. But I'm going to try to pull through this."

Another Burlington resident, a young mother named Jane, is also hopeful. She and her daughter and son, having fled an abusive fiancé, live in transitional housing provided by Love Inc. "Not having a particular house bothers the children some, but we do a lot of dreaming together," Jane says. "They know it's not forever. As long as we stick together, we're OK."

As Morrow awaits the opening of the shelter, she sums up an attitude slowly spreading across stubbled cornfields. "Homelessness is here," she says firmly. "We need to help take care of it."

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