Down and Out in Rural America : Homeless Tell Stories of Deprivation, Struggle

Associated Press

They have lived in campgrounds and cars and learned to regard hot water and heat as luxuries of life. Here are the voices of people who have been homeless or have opened their doors to those who have been:

When Ken and Vanessa Armstrong ran out of money and luck, they ended up without a home.

The young couple and their baby boy came to the Welcome Inn Transitional Living Center in Mankato, Minn., this fall after an unsuccessful job search.

This spring, when they could not pay rent, they left Mankato looking for work. But without money, they had to sleep in the car and a campground. They returned when it got too cold. They stayed at the center almost two months.


“I was scared,” Vanessa Armstrong said. “I thought it was going to be a lot of bums. I thought it was going to be a lot of people drunk and just wanting a place to pass out at night. It wasn’t that way at all.

“I think a lot of people are there just because . . . they had a bad streak of luck,” she said. “It can happen to anyone.”

Ken Armstrong, 23, is job-hunting; his wife works at a fast-food restaurant. In early December, they found a one-bedroom apartment, and a social service agency paid the first month’s rent.

Brenda DeHart lives by one golden rule: Never turn from your family.

So when her younger sister and brother-in-law lost their house a few years ago, she opened her heart and her door. Her relatives became what some experts call the “hidden homeless"--people who live with others because they do not have their own place.

It was nerve-racking with four adults and four children in the one-bedroom house in Olive Hill, Ky., but they made do. The kids slept in a bunk bed in the kitchen, three boys in one bed, the girl in the other. Her pregnant sister and brother-in-law slept in the living room.

“We had a roof over our heads and we had hot and cold water,” DeHart said. “I don’t know if you could call that many people in that amount of space adequate. If you consider privacy a necessity, or dignity a necessity, then no, we didn’t have it.”

They lived mostly on DeHart’s income; she works as an advocate at Bethany House, a Christian social service center that provides temporary shelter and other services for low-income people.

They ate potatoes, brown beans, soups and stews. “There wasn’t any money left over,” said the 38-year-old DeHart. “The Lord really helped out. He really kept me from losing whatever sanity I had.”

After a few months, her sister and brother-in-law moved into a dilapidated home and he found work.

“God in his infinite wisdom,” she said, “provides an avenue out.”

For 18 months, Terry Young and her family stayed in a camper. But it was never a home.

“It’s like trying to live in a matchbox,” she explained. “It was pure misery.”

The family moved to Kentucky from Florida in 1986 when Young lost her job at a pizza restaurant. Her husband is disabled and could not find work. A friend said they could stay in the camper if they watched his cabin.

The camper had a bathroom and shower, but the water tank leaked. They scrounged for soda and beer cans to buy propane for heat. Young washed her family’s clothes in a creek, using a garbage can for a tub, and aggravated the arthritis she already has in her hands at age 30.

“Most of the time I cried myself to sleep,” she said. “I never held my head high.”

Young has more confidence now and holds a federally funded job at Bethany House, where she manages the clothing store. She earns just $3 an hour and cannot afford a doctor for her husband, who has five slipped discs, a bad knee and a dislocated jaw.

But the family has a house now; Bethany House helped with the deposit. The doors are too short for the jambs, the oven does not work well and the windows are so thin, she said, “you can almost breathe on them and see them move.”

“When we first moved in, I thought it was . . . heaven,” Young said. “Actually it’s not--other than privacy and running water.”

Her walls are filled with holes, her ceiling is caving in, and when it rains outside, Gracie Adkins feels it inside--on her bed.

In such miserable living conditions, most folks would consider her homeless. But the mother of two sons counts her blessings.

“It’s a roof over our head and we’re thankful to have it,” said Adkins, 32.

Her house in Logan County, W.Va., has charred wiring, one working light, cold water only and no window glass. Some of the holes in the walls are stuffed with clothes, another is covered with a picture of Jesus.

Joan Hairston, director of New Employment For Women, the agency trying to help Adkins, said welfare officials consider anyone who lives in such a place homeless.

“Honey, when a lot of people see this house, they told me no one lived there,” Adkins confirmed. “They say nobody lives in a place like that, but we do. We love that place. It’s peaceful. It gives me a sense of responsibility. It helps me to get through each day. It helps me to want to do better.

“I look at the holes. I sleep in the bed and it rains,” she said. “I pray to God. I say, ‘Lord, help me overcome.’ Instead of crying and being depressed, I pray to give me the willpower and strength to overcome with time. With patience comes understanding. Everyday I have a chance to do better.”