Cheslock offers one such solution: Transfer responsibility for rural programs from HUD to the Department of Agriculture, whose employees already work in small towns across the West. Cheslock and Colorado Rep. John Salazar, D, are crafting legislative language to designate $50 million for USDA rural homeless programs. Communities would apply for small grants, maxing out at $50,000.

“That seems like nothing,” Cheslock says, “but a rural area could do so much with that.”

A heavy toll

At 7:30 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving, Trivitt heads to work, her hair pulled into a ponytail to disguise the fact she hasn’t showered.

The children, however, have a holiday from school, and the day stretches before them. They ping-pong around town, seeking entertainment and shelter from Oregon’s rain. After visits to the pet store, the city dock and two used-car lots, they land at the mall. Here they find “lunch” for the day: a juice vendor’s tiny sample of strawberry smoothie.

Eric and Jennifer try to keep classmates from discovering that they live in a car, but their situation is hardly unusual. This year, 175 of Coos Bay schools’ 3,500 students were homeless. In Oregon, over 11,000 students have no place to live; nationwide, at least 200,000 kids are homeless on any given day. These children fall behind in school, suffer disproportionately from health problems, and are more likely than their housed peers to become homeless as adults.

Jennifer wants to go live with her grandmother, but her mother refuses. “If I lost Jennifer, I’d be lost,” she says. Recently, after two straight rainy days, the dank Jeep seemed to shrink around the family. The quiet disagreement erupted into an argument that ended when Trivitt, having reached some limit of patience and hope, threw a CD player at the windshield. Now, a spiderweb of cracks fragments her view of the road.

Help is hard to come by

Homeless programs help people survive crises, but a deeper problem persists, rooted in a shifting economy. In much of the rural West, housing costs are rising while service jobs replace relatively high-paying, blue-collar work — and receding federal housing programs haven’t filled the gap.

In order for rental housing to be “affordable,” it must cost less than 30 percent of the family’s total income. By that measure, nothing in Coos Bay — not even a studio apartment — is within reach of someone like Barbara, who earns Oregon’s minimum wage of $7.50 per hour. To afford a three-bedroom place, she’d have to work 84 hours each week.

“This is a dynamic you’ll find all over the West Coast; it’s not just unique to Coos Bay,” says Bob More, director of a nonprofit that provides a range of social services along the Oregon coast, where fishing and timber have given way to golf courses, restaurants and hotels. Each week, his organization turns away between five and seven families seeking rent or utility assistance.

Congress has been reluctant to subsidize low-income housing over the last 25 years. HUD — which administers most federal housing programs — is a shadow of its former self, with a current budget less than half of what it was in 1978.

Rural areas have been particularly hard-hit — USDA’s rural affordable housing program now produces just 5 percent of the housing units it did three decades ago. As older units convert to market-rate rentals, there is a net loss of affordable housing. Meanwhile, the Section 8 program continues to shrink: There are 130,000 fewer Section 8 vouchers now than in 2004. Barbara will wait six months to two years before she gets another voucher.

That leads to a high-stakes game of musical chairs, says Beth Shinn, a professor of public policy at New York University: The chairs are affordable housing units and the players are families trying to secure them. “Because there are fewer inexpensive housing units than households that need them, some folks are left homeless when the music stops,” Shinn says. “Individual problems influence which players are left standing, but when there are so many more players than chairs, it is not only people with problems who get left out.

“Homelessness is likely to remain widespread until we raise wages or subsidize housing enough to bring the gap between incomes and housing costs down,” adds Shinn.

Mangano says more money for low-income housing won’t come without a shift in political priorities. “When was the last time you heard a presidential candidate — or even a senatorial candidate — talk about housing as a major issue? Housing is not a primary issue, a secondary issue or a tertiary issue. It’s not even on the screen.”

Two weeks after Thanksgiving, Trivitt has saved $200, but her Jeep has been repossessed. “No way to get the kids to school, run errands, look at houses, get to and from work,” she says. “I have lost my independence.”

She and the children are staying in a Coos Bay motel for one week, courtesy of a generous local politician, but it’s just a stopgap measure. At the end of the week, without an affordable home on the horizon, they’ll be looking for another temporary place to stay.

 

The author writes from Berkeley, California.