Growing Rural Problem : Homeless: Beyond the Big Cities

Times Staff Writer

Snow whipped across the icy road and dark clouds lingered low in the sky. A raw wind rattled the pines, and snowmobiles whined across a frozen lake. It was deep winter in the far north.

Inside a former church, Daniel and Marsha St. Jean and their four young children had found temporary shelter from the storm.

The St. Jeans are from St. Francis--"just a wide spot in the road,” she said with a grin--a tiny town near the Canadian border like hundreds of other backwoods hamlets that dot the dense forests covering America’s northeastern corner.

Last year, St. Jean lost his job and his wife got sick. They moved to Presque Isle, the biggest town for 150 miles, to find work. Instead, their bills added up. Then their water and sewer pipes froze. Last month, the house they had rented was condemned.


‘No Place to Go’

“We had no place to live,” said Marsha St. Jean, 26. “We had no place to go.”

Desperate, they went to the aging clapboard chapel, now a shelter with 15 neat beds and the aroma of baking bread. Far from the homeless hordes in New York and Los Angeles, the remote refuge gave meals, a bed, clothes and relocation support to 165 homeless last year. This year appears to be even busier.

Homelessness is no longer just a big city problem. Across the country, small towns and rural communities such as Presque Isle, Me.; Napa, Ida.; Great Bend, Kan., and Henderson, Tex., are fighting a little-noticed battle against homelessness in the hinterlands. And dozens of the new rural shelters are already overburdened and overcrowded.


“Rural homelessness is much less visible,” said Maria Foscarinas, counsel to the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D. C. “There aren’t heat grates, soup kitchens and subways in rural areas . . . but they’re there. And we can say with certainty that the number is increasing.”

On the Move

Many are also on the move. Fifty years after John Steinbeck wrote “The Grapes of Wrath” about the plight of Depression-era Okies, modern-day Joads are again bundling destitute families into cars and leaving behind farm foreclosures in Illinois, oil field layoffs in Oklahoma, closed mines in Minnesota.

“What we’re experiencing now in Oregon is something that last happened in the Dust Bowl days,” said Bob More, whose 24-bed shelter in North Bend, Ore., overflowed last year with 994 homeless people. “We’re seeing folks from the Farm Belt, from the oil patch. In February, most of our people came from the Midwest.”

“I think it’s just far worse than anyone imagined,” said Lois Wendell, whose 17-bed shelter in Morristown, an hour north of Knoxville, Tenn., housed 383 people in 1988, its first year in operation. “Last week, a couple came in with three kids, ages 4, 3 and 1, and another on the way any day. The husband had lost his job. They had 1/8 tank of gas. No money. And they were coming from Wyoming.”

Although the evidence is mostly anecdotal, rural community agencies in 36 states reported more homeless people, particularly families with children, in their areas last year, according to a survey by the nonprofit, Washington-based Housing Assistance Council. All told, homeless advocates estimate that up to 20% of the nation’s homeless are now in rural areas.

“It’s a growing trend,” said Melanie Roth, the survey author. “Parts of the country that were not affected before, suburbs and rural areas, are now being affected.”

Long accustomed to focusing on urban conditions, public policy analysts in Washington and community service groups are perplexed by the apparent surge in homelessness elsewhere. Little research has been done, and hard numbers are hard to find.


“This is such a new phenomenon,” said Alan Sutherland, senior adviser to the Interagency Council on the Homeless, the federal government’s chief coordinating agency for homeless assistance programs. “The perception is that the problem is increasing. The statistics are that no one knows.”

Full Census Count

That may change. The U.S. Census Bureau will try to count both rural and urban homeless people in the 1990 census for the first time. At sunset on March 20 next year, squads of “enumerators” will visit thousands of shelters, welfare hotels and tent cities. At 2 a.m., they will check “street people” in alleys, train stations, and under bridges. Then at dawn, they will interview people coming out of abandoned buildings.

“This is the first time there’s been a nationwide enumeration,” said Cynthia Taeuber, a Census Bureau demographer.

Most of the homeless are in urban areas, of course. Nearly every major city saw an increase in people seeking emergency shelter last year, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Not including hundreds of families, New York City’s shelters held a record 10,978 single people one cold night last month--a population equal to all of Presque Isle.

Survival is often easier in the cities. Services are fewer in the country. Distances are greater, transportation tougher. And rural and urban homeless are surprisingly different. A study conducted by the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, found that homeless people in the country tend to be younger and include more women.

“There are a lot more married couples and intact families among the rural homeless,” said Dr. Fredric Solomon, head of the Institute’s division of mental health and behavioral medicine. “Homeless families in a city usually means a single mother and small children. Homeless families in rural areas more likely means a mother, father and children.”

The problem is more often a question of jobs than housing, the report said. Between the farm crisis and downturns in timber, mining, petroleum and other energy industries, rural unemployment rates now consistently exceed urban ones--a reversal of historic trends.


“So many rural counties are not diversified,” said Institute researcher Larry T. Patton, who wrote the appendix on rural homelessness. “They’re dependent on a single industry. If that industry goes, where do these people go?”

Many of them wind up as “couch people,” doubling up in friends’ living rooms or tripling up in trailers. Some get “Greyhound therapy,” a bus ticket to the next shelter or gasoline enough to cross the county line. Others sleep at the “Graybar Hotel,” the local jail. Still others take over state and federal campsites.

“People can’t maintain on minimum wage,” said Diane Roberts, whose shelter in Boise, Ida., provided a roof over 1,500 women and children last year. “It’s getting worse. People are having a harder time keeping a household.”

“Mostly, you have people who are stacked three and five families deep in little one-room homes,” said Mary Cassity, a social worker who estimates that there are 200 homeless people in Henderson, in East Texas.

In many small towns, the term homeless is reserved for vagrants, drifters just passing through. Local homeless people are seen as folks having hard times. Relatives and friends often lend them a hand, but tradition frays badly when an entire community is suffering.

“We found a lot of farmers in the Midwest who were very bitter that no one in their community had lent a hand,” Patton said. “In reality, these people found no one was there to help them. Now they don’t know how to ask, they’re in real trouble, and their neighbors don’t stop by.”

However it is defined, service providers say that many urban and rural homeless share the same problems: marriages dissolve, families break up, domestic abuse goes up and alcoholism, depression and suicide attempts are more common.

There is good news as well. Several communities have set up innovative shelter and support programs for the rural homeless.

In San Benito County, 55 miles south of San Jose, the Emergency Housing Consortium took over a 154-acre farm last October. Homeless farm families now can live there for up to two months, and help raise produce for the group’s eight shelters.

In southern Santa Clara County, the consortium uses a migrant workers’ camp as a winter shelter. From December to March, the Ochoa Winter Center houses up to 60 rural families in furnished, two-bedroom duplexes. Job counseling is required, and county officials help the residents search for jobs and permanent housing.

“Rural homeless will not go to the city shelters,” said Barry Del Buono, executive director. “Rural homeless will live in their cars on the coldest night of the year rather than go to the city. They’re afraid of the city.”

In Dunkirk, N.Y., a local ministry is building a project to include 19 apartments, a soup kitchen, a second-hand clothing store and a small appliance shop. In Prescott, Ariz., a nonprofit group organized a “partners in housing” program to screen families, find local housing and provide back-up services. The families then partially repay the aid in community service.

If anything, town officials in Presque Isle, Me., complain, their shelter is too busy. “It has ballooned all out of proportion,” said Mona Blanchard, town welfare director. “Wherever there’s a shelter, it draws people. We get them from Oregon, Florida, California, you name it. They just go from shelter to shelter.”

Under a state law that requires towns to provide emergency housing and assistance, Presque Isle used to put homeless people in a motel overnight. But at St. Mary’s Church, Sister Mary O’Donnell arranged for a more permanent place after the town opened a new animal shelter in 1984.

“I thought if we could provide shelter for animals, we could provide shelter for humans,” she said.

Today it is the northernmost of Maine’s 32 shelters. Social workers help newcomers get food stamps, sign up for state general assistance, join job training programs and search for what little work is available in an area with a double-digit unemployment rate.

“People think these folks are bums,” said Goldie Whitmore, who runs the shelter with her husband, Norm. “I don’t think you can classify people as lazy when they’ll walk two hours across town to shovel snow for two hours.”

And for all the hard-luck stories, some rural families do struggle back.

The St. Jeans, for example, found a $350-a-month apartment outside nearby Easton after three weeks in the shelter. The sofa is torn, their mattresses are on the floor and they still can’t afford a phone. But St. Jean is working again, laying carpet and bringing home a paycheck.

They are homeless no longer.