The Hidden Homeless of Rural America
Kevin Hawkins sat down at one of the long conference room tables in the Leavenworth Interfaith Community of Hope. He had a couple of minutes to spare before he had to drive a fellow shelter guest to Lawrence for a court appearance.
He started working part time at the shelter a couple of months ago, doing odd jobs like driving guests where they need to go or helping with a mindfulness workshop in the evening.
He’s hoping to have his own place in the coming months. For the past two years, he’s been living at the Community of Hope.
“Hopefully in the next few months, I’ll be moving out,” Hawkins said. “COVID kind of put me on about a year hiatus from what I was working on.”
He’s been working to find housing he can afford and trying to get disability benefits.
Both of these tasks have long wait lists. Sometimes years long.
In rural areas, it can be even harder to come by because, according to the Kansas Homeless Coalition, the numbers reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) don’t reflect the actual need.
In cities and urban areas, unhoused people will often be on the streets, in public encampments, or in shelters. In more rural areas, people will seek shelter in the woods, abandoned farm buildings or couch surf.
Shanae Eggert with Kansas Homeless Coalition said the “hidden homeless population” of rural areas perpetuates a cycle of scarcity.
“We don’t identify as many people who are actually experiencing homelessness (as) we would in an urban area, and it’s unfortunately a cycle,” Eggert said. “Because this population is more hidden in those areas, you can’t show an accurate need like you could in the city.”
According to state Continuum of Care data, in the state of Kansas 943 people in rural areas are homeless on a given night. The same estimate for Missouri sits at 1,569 people on a given night.
But Eggert said there are more people living without a home than what the numbers show.
Once resources are made available, it’s usually clear that the need is much greater.
Myranda Agnew, the director of the Leavenworth Interfaith Community of Hope, said when the center first opened, it was essentially just a food pantry.
Now, it has three operations: a day center, a night center and Welcome Central, which provides essential services like transportation, help with job seeking and daily living skills to assist those living in poverty.
The founder of the organization, Sister Vickie Perkins, started Welcome Central and immediately realized the need for a night shelter. When it became clear that people would stay in the night center and then head to Welcome Central to seek shelter during the day, the community opened a day center, which now serves breakfast and lunch seven days a week, no questions asked.
“As they started working with our community, they realized there’s way more homeless than anybody believed,” Agnew said.
In 2018 local churches and donors funded the construction of the center’s current location in northeast Leavenworth. Since then, all three branches of the organization have been housed in one location.
Agnew said poverty and homelessness are invisible to a lot of people in Leavenworth County. The county has a population of about 81,000 people and is home to Fort Leavenworth, a large military base. As a military town, she said, there’s a lot of wealth and a lot of families who are left behind as they cannot keep up with the prices of the town.
“This area in general is so unique … with (a) huge military population, a lot of wealth and then a lot of poverty,” Agnew said.
Because Leavenworth doesn’t typically have public encampments or panhandling on the street, its community can forget about it’s unhoused population.
“It’s like, you’ve always had them. They’re here, you just don’t see them,” Agnew said. “If we don’t see it, our community is not disrupted. But the thing they don’t understand is (that) there are so many levels of unhoused individuals.”
The idea that most people have of unhoused individuals doesn’t match what she sees on a daily basis.
Agnew said there are unhoused individuals who fit the traditional stereotype of living in a tent or under a bridge. Many of these people hide and avoid shelters because of severe mental health issues that make it difficult to live with groups of people.
“That’s actually a very small population of the unhoused,” Agnew said.“Those people will never step foot in a shelter like ours, and that’s okay. They know their boundaries. But that doesn’t mean in the winter they don’t need something warm, and it doesn’t mean they don’t need food.”
The other side of the unhoused, she said, are hard workers who have faced barriers, or whose earnings are just not enough. No one knows they’re unhoused, they’re just members of the community.
“They’re not dirty, they don’t dress bad, they just don’t have a house,” Agnew said.
Alcoholism, addiction or childhood trauma can be contributing factors to a person’s situation, so Agnew said the shelter works with these people daily to help them feel comfortable enough to get the help they need.
“People just judge so much the unhoused population because they just don’t know,” Agnew said. “It’s an unknown world to them. So again, that’s where we come in with the education piece.”
For Hawkins, the shelter has been a safe place before. He first found himself at the shelter in 2018 for a brief stint, before going to work at a large manufacturing company in town.
The 12-hour, gruelling days and a work-related injury led him to look for different job opportunities and eventually back into the shelter.
“(The shelter) gives us a safe place, not just myself, but those of us that choose (to be here),” Hawkins said. “With it being here, it gives us a safe place to be during the day, definitely a safe environment at night to sleep.”
Hawkins said he was especially thankful to have a safe place to sleep after the City of Leavenworth passed an ordinance which made it illegal to camp in public parks.
While the city has its reasons for the ordinance, these are the policies that perpetuate the feelings of invisibility and disposability of the unhoused. It’s easier to forget about a problem when it’s hidden from sight.
“We’re almost like a disposable, invisible society,” Hawkins said. “The stigma is always that they’re all alcoholics, or drug addicts, or (have) mental issues … But no, we’re not all drug addicts and alcoholics. It’s just a big misconception.”
Unaddressed mental health concerns and childhood trauma can contribute to a person becoming unhoused.
Hawkins said almost all of the unhoused individuals he’s met have some sort of mental health issue, himself included. Mental health care is not readily available in most rural areas, which means many people go untreated.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate because my case manager has been doing it for over 20 years,” Hawkins said. “And everybody here is wonderful.”
The Community of Hope is a low barrier shelter and will accept anyone who is able to make their bed and be respectful to one another. The shelter offers some faith-based activities and it was started by a Sister of Service, but Agnew said the shelter doesn’t push religion or make it a requirement of the guests.
Requirements to be clean, or to follow specific religious requirements can be reasons people will choose to stay on the street. For Agnew, it’s important that anyone can benefit from the Community of Hope, because not having a bed or a hot meal can perpetuate someone’s unhoused state.
Agnew said the shelter staff are always trying to think long term for their guests. Sometimes this means getting them housed, getting them a job, or it can mean getting them to the care that they need at a long term facility.
Currently, Agnew said, eight of the 12 people who frequent the day center are employed. Several businesses in downtown Leavenworth are hiring guests from the shelter.
“We’ve got some great employers in downtown Leavenworth that will hire any of our unhoused population, regardless of their struggles,” Agnew said. “So we have more working now than we ever have.”
Even once employed, it can take time before an individual can afford (or find) housing. Then there’s the problem of transportation in a town without even a bus system.
Shelters and organizations can do a lot to support the unhoused and impoverished populations, but without proper access to social services like public transportation, it’s hard to see how to ameliorate the situation.
Whitney Lanning, the executive director of Community Action Partnership (CAP) of Greater St. Joseph, said she hopes to see a community that better understands the problems facing unhoused populations.
Lanning said even with the currently hot job market, it’s hard to sustain a job without essentials like housing, transportation and child care.
“When you don’t start with reliable transportation or child care, or safe and affordable housing – if you don’t have those basic needs met, it’s hard to enter the workforce and sustain being in the workforce,” Lanning said.
St. Joseph has a population of about 75,000 people, and Lanning said the community is pretty understanding and aware of the homeless population in town. But the surrounding rural communities, which the Community Action Partnership also serves, are less aware.
Lanning said in those communities fewer people are living on the streets and more so fit a “Mckinney Vento” definition of homeless. This means they’re living in doubled-up situations, couch surfing, or lacking a stable residence.
“I think in our very rural areas, homelessness is not on the top of the community’s list of priorities,” Lanning said.
This isn’t because those communities don’t care, but more so an out-of-sight, out-of-mind type of situation.
Unhoused individuals in nearby rural areas will come to the CAP shelter in St. Joseph because Lanning said it offers resources that the smaller surrounding towns might not be able to offer.
While a lot of smaller towns don’t have a homeless shelter, they’ll have a food bank or two. Typically, they operate out of a local church.
In Gallatin, Missouri, Kathy Reed started the Gallatin Adventist Community Center to serve Daviess County with food and clothing resources.
Reed and her late husband started the center in their church in 1997 because they believed it was important to help their community.
Now, the center has grown beyond its small beginnings to regularly feed hundreds of people a month in Daviess County and provide countless individuals with clothing and household items.
Reed’s story echoed what Agnew said. No one had any idea how big the problem was until they started looking and offering help.
“For anybody in Daviess County, there’s no need for anybody to go hungry or without clothes,” Reed said. “Anybody that needs help, they can come by and we’ll just do what we do and help them anyway we can.”
Because the need is so great, Reed has to follow the Missouri Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which evaluates income and family size, to give qualifying households a box of food and household supplies each Wednesday.
Unfortunately, this is a problem across the board. Rural or urban, the need heavily outweighs the available resources.
To place someone in a program for HUD, Eggert said the Kansas Homeless Coalition follows the coordinated entry program. This program evaluates an individual’s likelihood of dying based on their current housing situation. The more likely they are to not survive a night, the higher up the list they go.
“This is across the nation, but there (are) not enough resources for every person experiencing homelessness,” Eggert said.
It’s not a perfect system, as it means some people are left out, but until the resources match the need, the scoring matrix is the reality. Eggert said it also enforces some organization too.
“There are a lot of pros, because before coordinated entry, if you just walked into the right agency, you could get (help),” Eggert said. “But you’d have to know that agency, you’d have to know what they do.”
Now, anyone who enters a state or federally funded agency is put in the coordinated entry system to be matched with the right agency.
Housing advocates in rural areas would like to see more awareness, more resources and affordable housing that’s actually attainable for someone on fixed income.
Christy McMurphy, executive director of Kansas Homeless Coalition, said her dream scenario is to see more genuinely affordable housing. “The HUD definition of affordable housing is 30% of your income,” she said, “and most affordable housing is higher than that.”
“Not just affordable, but accessible housing,” Eggert interjected.
Supportive services are also important, Eggert said. These services can help those who are “chronically homeless” build the necessary skills to stay housed and to eventually find employment.
CAP in St. Joseph runs an overnight shelter out of 15 rented rooms in a local motel. This model allows individuals a private room and bathroom and means families, who wouldn’t be allowed in a congregate setting, have a room to sleep in.
Lanning said the program has been successful so far. Most people are only in for about seven days before case workers find permanent or temporary housing.
But it’s expensive. Lanning said the motels cost around $40,000 a month, and that’s not including the case workers CAP supplies, nor the food bank, child care and utility support it offers as well.
Lanning said it can feel like only a few organizations recognize that the unhoused population needs help. If more people made it a priority, more could be done.
“It’s a very expensive problem to solve, at least for the amount of money that we receive to do it,” Lanning said. “So I think just being aware that it’s a problem (and) identifying it as a priority to solve.”
Getting help also has to be a priority for the unhoused persons as well. Not everyone is ready or able to reintegrate with society or even ask for help from a shelter, and that’s okay.
Hawkins met a lot of people during his stay at the shelter in Leavenworth, some of whom have been living at the Community of Hope for four or more years.
“It’s hard to get back out there and reintegrate with the community,” Hawkins said.
It’s especially hard when the community doesn’t understand, looks down on, or flat out ignores the unhoused members of their population.
“We’re not all the same,” Hawkins said. “And yeah we have issues, but everybody has issues. Our issues have just made us unhoused for the time being.
“Those of us that want to reintegrate with the community are looking for a chance to do exactly that,” Hawkins said. “Reintegrate, work, make our living, do our thing, contribute to society.”