Under the radar
In the rural West, the homeless are rarely seen and often ignored
COOS BAY, OREGON -- The Mill Casino RV Park sits on the site of the old Weyerhaeuser mill near this former timber town, population 15,000. The park is crowded with vacationing couples this Thanksgiving weekend; in the early-morning half-light, they emerge from Winnebagos to walk their dogs. Later, they’ll head to the casino to try their luck at the slots.
Meanwhile, in an adjacent asphalt lot where you can stay for free without a hookup, Barbara Trivitt and her two kids are waking up in a Jeep Grand Cherokee — Eric, 13, in the driver’s seat, Barbara in shotgun, and Jennifer, 15, curled up in back.
The Trivitts have lived this way since moving to the coast a month ago. They came here with little — $100 from the sale of a beloved Australian shepherd and a $186 child support check. Now they have nothing. The money ran out three days ago, the gas gauge reads below empty and all that’s left to eat are potato chips.
Access to the RV park’s showers and toilets is $5 per person, so the three of them brush their teeth and change their clothes inside the car; they pee between a pair of open car doors. It’s been two days since the last bath, and there aren’t many clean clothes left; inside the Jeep, the air is sour.
“I feel bad for doing this to my kids,” Trivitt says. “I feel like an awful parent because I can’t provide for them. ... They shouldn’t have to live out of a car.”
With her long auburn hair, bright blue eyes and erupting giggle, Trivitt seems younger than her 43 years. But sometimes in quiet moments, she stares off at the horizon, and the lines on her forehead deepen under the weight of so much worry.
Not just in cities
When we think of the homeless, we tend to imagine mentally ill or alcoholic loners wandering city streets. But on the fringes of small towns across the West, people live in cars, in makeshift tents and under bridges. They’re no less in need than unkempt men sleeping in Denver doorways, but they’re less visible. Even as the Bush administration spends millions to ease homelessness in cities, rural people without homes struggle to find help.
“The unmet need is out of control,” says Lance Cheslock, director of a shelter in rural Colorado. “It’s a crisis that’s being ignored.”
In the lexicon of federal aid programs, only those sleeping on the street or in shelters are defined as homeless. But in small towns, displaced people often camp, stay in cheap hotels or “double up”— move in with friends. That makes them hard to see and count: Nobody knows exactly how many rural families quietly live in poverty at the edge of the mainstream.
Trivitt has struggled with money since she left Jennifer’s father 14 years ago, after he broke his knuckles punching her. Six years ago she lost her job at a veneer mill, and the family spent the summer homeless in Eugene. Since then, she’s been taking classes toward an associate’s degree and working a series of low-paying jobs that leave her juggling unpaid bills at month’s end.
This time, Trivitt lost her home when she left La Pine, Ore. — she was fleeing another abusive relationship, and Eric had been in trouble with the police. She chose Coos Bay for its school district, which offers a well-regarded program for misbehaving teens. She found a job almost immediately, answering telephones for minimum wage.
But moving meant the family lost its Section 8 voucher, a federal housing subsidy, and Trivitt can’t afford a home in Coos Bay without it. Neither of the two homeless shelters in town can offer the family a place to stay: One houses only adults, and the other won’t take Eric without a male parent.
Federal homeless aid is hard to come by all over the rural West; needy people are dispersed, and it’s impractical to provide a full range of services in every tiny town. Meanwhile, federal funding structures favor cities and leave rural organizations wanting.
“Resources are consolidated in urban areas,” says Cheslock. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, the federal agency that administers most homeless programs, “isn’t doing anything to fund the rural homeless.”
Rural service providers can’t compete for federal grants against large, well-developed urban organizations. And those grants, which often target subpopulations — such as HIV/AIDS patients or drug addicts — may work in cities but don’t fit the needs of small towns, where aid agencies must help anyone who walks through the door.
Cheslock says rural areas need flexible grants to aid migrant farmworkers, families and the mentally ill. His shelter in Alamosa, Colo., has provided a wide range of services since 1981, thanks mostly to fund-raising tenacity and a local spirit of volunteerism. Only 11 percent of its budget comes from federal dollars.
Philip Mangano, head of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, coordinates the federal response to homelessness — and he agrees that it’s harder for rural areas to get federal money. But “rural folks need to get beyond the idea that someone’s going to come from Washington to solve their problem,” he says. “They have to be strategic and creative in fashioning a solution.”
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.