The Rapid Spread of Rural Homelessness

By Beacon Staff

This is the second in a three-part series on homelessness in Montana.

The nation’s rural homeless rate is soaring. In Montana, it has really grown wings. But it’s not bums begging for your change on the corner. It’s the kid sitting next to your child in third grade. It’s your co-worker. Montana’s homeless are disproportionately working families. And they’re crowding shelters from Billings to Kalispell.

Nationwide, families make up about 30 percent of the homeless population. In parts of Montana, the rate is double, though exact statistics are impossible for a demographic that often prefers to hide. Shelters and housing programs geared specifically toward homeless families are sprouting up all over the state, but officials say it’s still far from enough. Low wages and high rent in Montana are the overriding culprits; skyrocketing foreclosure and unemployment rates aren’t helping either.

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of sheltered homeless living in rural and suburban areas across the country rose from 367,551 in 2007 to 509,459 in 2008, when the national economy took its dive. That’s a 39 percent jump – for rural and suburban families it was 56 percent. Larry Gallagher, with HUD’s Helena field office, said Montana’s rates are in step with those trends.

Across the board, Montana’s homeless population is higher than most would ever guess, Gallagher said. According to the HUD report, the state’s homeless rate grew in 2008 by 23.2 percent, the third-highest increase in the nation behind Mississippi (42.4) and Wyoming (39.9). Families account for a significant percentage of that total. Despite the high numbers, it’s believed that homeless families, in their eagerness to avoid shame, are severely undercounted.

“We’re seeing an alarming increase in homelessness in Montana,” Gallagher said.

By and large, homeless families – both statewide and nationally – are made up of young single mothers with kids. Some of these moms have substance abuse problems or mental illnesses, but many just can’t pay the bills. They generally have low levels of education and limited job skills, but most are working, sometimes multiple jobs. Many of those who were barely hanging on before have now crumbled under the flailing economy.

At Kalispell’s Samaritan House, the largest homeless shelter in Flathead County, families make up 60 percent of occupancy. The Samaritan House provides emergency shelter, transitional housing and permanent housing for up to 118 people. It’s almost always full.

Eugene and Christine Welch, ages 23 and 21, say they wouldn’t be able to raise their child without the Samaritan House’s services. The day that their daughter Naomi was born, they left the hospital and drove directly to the Samaritan House. That was six months ago. They have been there ever since, living in one of the facility’s apartments at a rate of $325 per month.

Prior to the apartment, they spent a few months in the free shelter. Eugene works at Office Max and Christine will soon work at Borders. They say, with their job skills, they can’t find employment that pays enough to provide for both rent and their little girl. Eugene works between 29 and 32 hours per week at $8 an hour. After taxes, he brings in about $400 each paycheck – that doesn’t go too far in the Flathead’s rental market, especially with a baby to feed.

The Welches, who were high school sweethearts and graduated from Flathead High School, receive Medicaid assistance for Naomi, as well as money to help buy her baby formula. They peruse job listings daily.

“I guess that’s just Montana,” Eugene said. “It’s hard; it’s a tough place to live.”

He added: “Without the Samaritan House, (Naomi) would probably be in child service custody.”

In Missoula at the Joseph Residence, which offers housing for up to two years for homeless families, there is always a waiting list of at least 30 families, said Eran Fowler, director of supportive housing for Poverello Inc. Fowler emphasizes that “these are families that meet HUD requirements; they are living on the street or in their car. They are actually homeless.”

Whereas emergency shelters often treat temporarily homeless families – people who are down on their luck and need a place to recuperate – the Joseph Residence takes in the chronically homeless. The average family at the Joseph Residence is headed by a single mother, though Fowler said she occasionally gets an “intact” family with both the father and mother.

In these cases, one parent is generally working while the other is attending some form of school. Enrolling and keeping the kids in school is a foremost priority of workers like Fowler. But the children are often far behind in class and have emotional problems.

“There’s at least one or two children in your child’s classroom that are homeless and you won’t even know it,” Fowler said.

Ellen Bassuk, president of the National Center on Family Homelessness in Massachusetts, said in the 1980s families accounted for about 1 percent of the homeless population. Over the next two decades, that figure swelled to more than 30 percent. The large increase is attributed to economic factors and shifts in the American family – there are far more single-mother families.

“The biggest driver of homelessness is poverty – female heads of family are poor,” Bassuk said.

Further exacerbating matters in Montana are the state’s high foreclosure rates, which are particularly prevalent in the Flathead. Bassuk said the states with the foreclosure rates have seen some of the highest spikes in homelessness. People who have lost their homes or jobs, or both, are overwhelming aid services across the state.

Lori Botkin of the Flathead Food Bank said her agency is consistently flooded with families, many from the middle class, which represents a dramatic shift from past years. In 2008, the Flathead Food Bank distributed 18 percent more food than the previous year.

“We’re not seeing the live-under-the-bridge homeless,” Botkin said. “It’s more middle-income families. They come in, they’re well dressed; they drive nice cars.”

In a recession, fragile budgets strain and then shatter. Rural families living below or near the poverty line are never too far from homelessness. Sherrie Downing, coordinator for the Montana Council on Homelessness, describes it this way: “When you’re living at minimum wage you can be one car breakdown away from not being able to pay rent.”

Downing said homelessness is dangerous and can become expensive when people from the streets end up in the emergency room or short-term hospital care. The streets aren’t kind to medical conditions and injuries.

“The reality is people die without having homes,” Downing said. “Essentially, homelessness is a local problem that’s going to require local solutions.”

Montana has stepped up its programs and homeless awareness in recent years. In 2004, Gov. Judy Martz gave an executive order to establish the Montana Council on Homelessness, for which Downing works. After each legislative session since, Gov. Brian Schweitzer has re-authorized it. So far this year, he has yet to do so.

Also, organizations across the state are holding more events geared toward homeless awareness, as well as offering services. Over the weekend in Helena, Downing and Gallagher helped orchestrate one such event where homeless people were invited to shower, eat, receive dental and medical care, and learn more about available programs. These types of gatherings are increasingly common and widely attended.

There are also programs such as Family Promise, for homeless families, emerging in the state. Family Promise has a branch in Bozeman, with more planned in Helena and Missoula. As of now, there is no family-focused organization in the Flathead, leaving the Samaritan House and A Ray of Hope to shoulder the load.

It’s not always easy for organizations to find homeless families, as they tend to be more ashamed than individuals and try to remain hidden, said Gloria Edwards, executive director of Bozeman’s Family Promise: “They’re not very visible – they’re not the ones standing on street corners.” But it’s important to find them early before their problems grow worse. For most families, homelessness isn’t a lifestyle – it’s more situational than chronic, Edwards said.

“A lot of time families just need a hand up,” Edwards said. “And then they can be independent again.”

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