Under the radar

In the rural West, the homeless are rarely seen and often ignored

  • Barbara Trivitt and her children, 13-year-old Eric and 15-year-old Jennifer, lived in their Jeep in Coos Bay, Oregon, when they lost their voucher for subsidized housing

  • Eric at an RV park where showers are $5 a person

  • Jennifer with her one real meal of the day, a hamburger at a seller's warehouse after she and her family picked chanterelle mushrooms


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.”

High Country News Classifieds