Rural USA "deals" with homeless "problem", persistant poverty FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Thu, 18 Mar 1999 17:57:55 -0800 (PST)


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"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." -- from
article below

http://www.nando.com/noframes/story/0,2107,28402-45692-340195-0,00.html
FWD  Christian Science Monitor Service - March 16, 1999

     DEALING WITH HOMELESSNESS IN RURAL AMERICA [USA]

     By Todd Wilkinson

(March 16, 1999 2:12 p.m. EST http://www.nandotimes.com) - 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 10,000 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.

"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."

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."

Summers and his students are 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.

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 U.S. 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, 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 benefits 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.

The crisis on family farms, says 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."

END FORWARD

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