Homelessness in Rural Arkansas

Philis Wood, Contributing Reporter

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Being homeless is like living in a post-apocalyptic world. You’re on the outskirts of society. –Frank Dillane

What does homelessness in rural America look like? There is a cloud of common myths surrounding homelessness, particularly homelessness in rural Arkansas. Most people choose to turn a blind eye to homelessness, and we pass by these people in our daily lives but they are invisible to us. They sometimes live in tents in the woods outside not far from the local Walmart or truck stops.

Reverend Mary Lee Downey points out that homelessness is not defined necessarily as being without a home. It’s also people living in inadequate shelters, or ‘couch surfing’ from home to home, or living in cars or cheap motels. Downey is the executive director of the Community Hope Center, a non-profit she founded in 2103. The Community Hope Center provides a well-rounded assortment of services to the homeless and the disenfranchised in Osceola County, Florida. Rev. Downey was formerly an Arkansas resident. She graduated from Henderson State University, where she also received her first Master’s degree. During her time at Henderson State, she was news director of campus TV and radio, and worked for the Oracle. In 2006 Ms. Downey moved to Florida and began working with the homeless. She quickly became aware of a huge gap in care for the homeless at this time. She worked with 63 non-profit organizations in an effort to create holistic wraparound care—not just to alleviate homelessness but also to help combat the poverty that makes people vulnerable to the disaster that is homelessness. Downey’s efforts grew into The Community Hope Center. She now works with churches, individuals, private foundations, government officials—city, state, county, and federal—and even with a few corporations, in order to provide services for the homeless. Rev. Downey also worked with the directors of the movie The Florida Project, a fictional movie based on real people and events associated with The Community Hope Center in Florida. The movie portrays the life of 6-year-old Moonee, her friends, and Moonee’s mother. The film gives us a glimpse into the bitter reality of the homeless population around the stretch of highway just outside Disney World.

Even though some of these people live in low-budget motels, they are considered homeless by the definition provided by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The State of Education – ED.gov Blog defines a homeless child as any child living in the streets, living in anything unfit for habitation, or ‘couch-surfing,’ doubled up with friends. HUD has four levels of priority in determining allocations of limited funds for homelessness. The first level is someone who has been living in the streets for more than a year. The second level is someone who is at risk for being in the streets. This encompasses those families or individuals living in hotels or motels, or unfit habitations. The third level is for victims of domestic violence. The fourth level is those at-risk young adults, 18-22 who are couch-surfing or staying with friends. These categories determine the amount of funding allocated to services for the homeless.

The Community Hope Center serves all families. Although they refer out their domestic violence cases and at-risk youth to other agencies. “Your addictions and things you’re holding on to, your mental illness, your physical illness, your disabilities are secondary to your homeless classification.”  For instance, “If you have a chronically homeless man who has a disability and is self-medicating and because of this has an addiction as well. We still house this person first. We put them in housing and then you would bring them social services wraparound care, secondary.”

     The Florida Project chronicles the day to day life of the fictional character Mooney and her mother Haley. The film’s documentary style verges into surreal territory simply by exposing the juxtaposition of the fantasy that is Disney World over against the stark reality of homelessness in Osceola County along the Highway 192 corridor.

But homelessness is no longer just something we see in urban populations such as Osceola County. Rural Arkansas is now seeing homelessness too, because it is virtually impossible for families living on minimum wage ($8.50/hour) to afford adequate long-term housing. These concerns were made public knowledge and some issues were addressed in 2014 proposed policy brief which was issued by the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services. An article called “Homelessness in Rural America” brought out the fact that rural homelessness manifests quite differently than does urban homelessness. Rural homelessness can be virtually invisible, due to things like homeless individuals doubling-up with friends or family, or living in their cars, unused barns, vacant buildings, or encampments (“tent cities”) in densely-wooded areas on the outskirts of towns.

In 2009 Rev. Downey realized that she was witnessing the beginning of a new trend. Before 2009, there were relatively few individuals who were chronically homeless. But Downey believes that we now have a crisis directly related to the 2008 global financial meltdown. Also during the same time period, there was a downturn in tourism in Osceola County and this combination created the perfect storm. With no affordable housing but a number of newly-empty tourist hotels, families found it necessary to move into the hotels to seek shelter. Rev. Downey has seen as many as 9 people living in one hotel room, and she points out that there are now at least 67 school bus stops along the Disney World-Highway 192 corridor.

Along similar lines, right now many rural Arkansas families are experiencing homelessness for the first time. These newly-homeless are usually working, and are less likely to be on any kind of government assistance. Some reasons for rural homelessness are low wages, unemployment/underemployment, loss of affordable housing, and the fact that public assistance is usually not available—and even when it is, it hasn’t kept up with the cost of living.

Rev. Downey reports that the homeless are perfectly capable of autonomy and being free agency in telling their own story. Downey expressed her ways of dealing with this type of situation: “I have not nor will I ever pull on heart strings just to pull on heart strings. I tell stories of hope and remind people hope is available.”

Viewers tend to judge Moonee’s mother Haley in the movie. But Downey asserts: “It is easier to judge Haley; if we judge Haley then we feel no responsibility for Haley—if she had just done this or done that. Judging Haley keeps us from us from having to feel our feeling that children are in hotels and we are not doing a dang thing about it. We need to take off our judgment hats and think about places in our lives—if something shifted or if someone had not helped us. Someone helped you, if you choose to acknowledge it is on you. No one really ‘pulls themselves up by their own boot straps.’ Someone helped you.”

Rev. Downey made a statement that resonated throughout the interview: “Don’t you dare judge someone else and say: “Why don’t you do what I did!” Downey insists “When we take off our judgment hats we not only can have compassion; more importantly, we can recognize viable options for real change.” This is crucial, because the number of homeless is staggering and there doesn’t seem to be enough help to meet the current needs in our communities, even in rural Arkansas.

Arkansas’ truly public radio—KAFB 88.3—hosts a weekly talk show called Unsheltered Arkansas. One of their weekly radio shows addressed the issue of homelessness among our school age children. The statistics may surprise you. In the 2015-2106 school year in Arkansas there were 11,093 homeless students (by the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness). These numbers had increased by 1,239 since the previous school year (2014-2015). And although the new numbers had not officially been released the day of the talk show, they reported that the numbers had drastically increased for the 2016-2017 school year. They also noted that these numbers are actually low, since some families were too ashamed to report, and most undocumented immigrant families did not report their situation due to fear of deportation. Of these numbers there were 463 unaccompanied children and 268 children were unsheltered. Many of these children were living in cars or sleeping on park benches. One of the concerns of the state coordinator was the fact that some areas of high poverty identified no homeless children. This was thought to be because parents are afraid to report their homeless situation in fear of losing their children.

Rural poverty is the main reason for these large numbers of homeless children. These families either live unsheltered or in inadequate housing or in temporary housing. Most of the parents do not make enough money to afford housing. To some extent, the state helps to meet the immediate needs of these families with private donations and money from Title 1 (of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). Yet the numbers are still increasing. More homeless agencies are needed in the rural areas of Arkansas, more emergency shelters, and more affordable housing options. Instead of relying so heavily on private donations to close the gap of deficient public funding.

Contrary to the widespread belief that homeless people are lazy, state liaisons report that most of the families they provide services for are families in which the parents have jobs. This is especially true in rural areas. The concerns reported were largely economic. Lack of job skills, lack of education, and lack of affordable housing options to name a few. People tend to not realize there are homeless children in their districts or in their states. Homelessness is everywhere and affects everyone, but many rural communities—even ones experiencing a rise in homelessness—still refuse to acknowledge there is a problem.

The first homeless woman interviewed for this article asked that her name not be used. She is afraid that her family would be angry with her for going public about her situation.  Her situation is a common one: her landlord first raised her rent and then did not give her proper notice when her home had been sold. She had worked at McDonalds for 5 years. But first she lost her home, then she lost her job because she had no place to bathe or shower: McDonald’s fired her because she smelled sweaty. She and her 70-year-old mother have now been living in her van for 2 months. She stands all day at traffic lights asking stopped drivers for handouts. She was told the city she lives in would offer her a one-way bus ticket to leave town on condition that she never return. Agencies have reported that this occurs in some cities in Arkansas. The cities try to alleviate their homeless population removing their homeless, by helping them leave the state or their city. And this is their answer of solving the problem of homelessness.

Most ordinary citizens in Arkansas have no clue that homeless people are living in hidden encampments, usually within walking distance of Walmart or a bus stop, where they can utilize public bathroom facilities. These tent communities are kept secret both by the homeless and by local area officials and police. These people are living among us, hidden and invisible in the woods on the edge of town. And how many of us walk by the homeless every day and pretend not to see them?

Hope is the second homeless woman interviewed for this article. She lives in a rural community of Arkansas, and works full-time at her local Sonic restaurant. Hope walks to work from the low-budget motel where she lives with her 3 children, all little girls. Hope’s father sexually abused her, which started a lifetime of mental health issues for her. Hope’s children are all by the same man, and though he knows they are living in a hotel room, he does not offer support or help in any way. When talking with Hope, the hotel maintenance man began swearing at Hope’s children. Apparently, he wanted them in the hotel room out of sight. Hope says the hotel management gives her a discounted room rate as long as she cleans hotel rooms for them without pay. This is in addition to Hope’s full-time job at Sonic.

Hope’s room in the back of the motel has one small window set high in the wall. No one can look out of it, and there is very little natural light in the room. Scattered around the floor are Barbie dolls and various plastic toys from kid’s meals. There are two double beds, but neither one has sheets on it. The beds take up most of the room, leaving only a small walk space. Apparently, the room was designed for only one bed. There is a tiny bathroom as well.

Hope’s little girls are scared to talk at first. Then the oldest one (aged 13) asks if they are going to be taken away from their mother. Hope asks them if they mind having their picture taken. The oldest girl says she wants to be a model when she grows up. Hope confesses that she sometimes leaves her children at the hotel when she goes to work. Hope lives on the $650 per month that she earns from Sonic. She gets some food from her job and also food stamps. But she can’t save enough money to get a permanent residence for herself and her daughters.

An official at the school instructed Hope to forbid her girls from using their backpacks to carry books and supplies, because they thought the backpacks might contain roaches from the motel. Hope has been let down by the very society she looked up to at a young age. When her father sexually abused her, she imagined that all of the people outside her childhood home were sane and caring like the people on TV. But society doesn’t want to see Hope or her little girls. And these little girls have been let down by their father; who left Hope for another woman. Their father does not pay child support or assist them in any way.

There is an organization in Russellville, Arkansas called The Russ Bus, which is part of The One Inc. The One Inc. operates four locations in Arkansas. Their mission is to locate and care for unsheltered homeless people.  The Russ Bus organization does a great deal to help homeless people. Nicki Stone is director of family operations. Stone reports that “The people we service do not have the life skills most people have, for example: changing a vehicle’s engine oil. For most of us, this kind of task is just day-to-day common sense, but they do not have these decision-making skills or even basic budgeting skills, everyday decisions most of us do not even think about.”

Fred Teague is director of operations at The Russ Bus. Fred has worked tirelessly with social media to grow the organization’s efforts and raise awareness. Their Facebook site has over 9000 followers. Not only does Teague donated his time, he also lived in one of his homeless camps for 30 days because: “he wanted to live like the homeless people that The Russ Bus services. Teague offers this definition of homelessness: “Our definition is, no place else to go.”  The Russ Bus operates 9 individual camp sites, and several transition apartments for families. Each person or family that comes in is evaluated and served differently. They also pay for hotel rooms and deliver food to the unsheltered. However, the need is always greater than the means they have. They interview each person or family and their needs are met according to their crisis situation which is also determined by how much help the Russ Bus can offer at the time. Currently they are having fewer donations which they think is related to the people who they are used to getting donations from are taking vacation in the summer months. Donations always tend to be slower in the summer months.  Teague says: “Homeless people look like you and I.”  The face of homelessness is not black or brown or white or old or young or male or female. Homelessness has all these faces. It has no one face.

Chronic homelessness is not the problem in the Russellville area. The Russ Bus takes a proactive approach to their homeless situation. They work to transition their clients to independence. The condition for staying in their camps or receiving services is that the homeless person must be actively looking for work. Ms. Stone checks in on the clients daily to make sure they are checking up on job leads and that their needs are met to help them achieve this goal. They offer them P.O. Boxes, cell phones, and support services. Once the homeless person (the “client”) finds work, 30% of each paycheck is put aside in a money order made out to the client, and when they transition to independence they are giving their savings to start life over. The Russ Bus has proudly transitioned hundreds of families over a five-year course. When interviewed in April they were operating off a 6-figure budget largely due to private donations, church organizations, and local businesses. They provide nightly meals for their clients and a local food bank serves the needs for the other daily meals. Each client needs to be physically fit to live in their camps. Because they have to walk daily to search for work, to walk to the food banks, or to walk to the truck stops to take showers. Unfortunately, The Russ Bus has to turn away many disabled and elderly homeless who are not physically fit.

Why do more rural communities like Russellville not have this type of service? Teague says that “Most cities do not want to admit they have a homeless problem.” Many unsheltered homeless people live in tent camps throughout Arkansas. This is usually either 2 or 3 or more people or sometimes families living in tents wherever they can without getting caught. They usually try to locate themselves near a Walmart or a truck stop so that they can utilize the bathrooms. Most people have no idea how many homeless people sleep in hidden tents on the edges of cities and towns. Every day we probably walk past a homeless person and do not notice them. Do we choose not to see these invisibles, living in the shadows? Homelessness has no face.

The Russ Bus acts as the middle man to help the homeless get resources some of them had never even heard of, for instance, Food stamps. 100% of the donations go to meet the needs of their clients and the one person on a salary is Ms. Stone, whose salary is funded by the United Way. In the beginning Teague and the other volunteers would drive around asking people if they had shelter. Teague pointed out that “Homelessness does not discriminate. They are us, there is no face to homelessness.” The Russ Bus has helped homeless people as old as 82, and even a mother with 2 premature twin babies. They help people who just got too far behind on their rent, or who had a bad divorce, or who just lost their job last week. The Russ Bus personnel pride themselves on the fact that when you leave their organization, you’re a more stable member of society.

In North-central Arkansas, there is another organization which is also part of The One Inc. Jimmy Cooper is a former United States navy officer who started Road to Damascus in Searcy Arkansas to shelter homeless men in his area. In reply to the question “What does homelessness look like?” Cooper describes one of his former clients. When Cooper found him, this man was living out of his car in the Walmart parking lot. The man had recently lost his 6-figure job and was to ashamed to seek help. He and his wife had spent more than what they had to help cover the costs of medical school for their son. Cooper was able to find shelter for them and reunite them with their son, who promptly dropped out of medical school to shelter his parents. Cooper’s answer was: “You cannot tell what homelessness looks like.” The face of homelessness is everyone’s face.

Cooper said he still regularly encounters people who are unaware that there are any homeless people at all in their town. Road to Damascus got its start in March of 2017. It operates from a house on the outskirts of town that was donated to the organization and operates on a meager budget of $1,700 per month to feed, house, and clothe 5 men. Cooper says that Road to Damascus is about a story of a man who didn’t let his past define him: “If I can find one guy that is now stable and I took part in that, then it’s all worth it.” Cooper says donating is great, but everyone should really come out and visit and spend time with the men in his shelter. He wants people to understand homeless people are just like everyone else, but have just had some setbacks in life.

One common misconception that needs debunking is the idea that homeless people are lazy. Many of Arkansas homeless actually have jobs or want to work but due to their situation they cannot find work. Many have obstacles standing in their way of finding work. Maybe its lack of a vehicle, lack of a permanent housing prevents some jobs from hiring you, or lack of a cell phone. Some of these individuals may not have a stable work history, this is more often due to insurmountable poverty than any poor personal decisions made in their past. As Rev. Downey pointed out “We all would be better off if we took off our judgment hats because if we tell the truth someone helped us at some point in time.” Another common misconception is that all you can recognize homeless people because they look different from everyone else. But there is no “look” of homelessness. Most of the homeless people in rural Arkansas and across America look just like everyone else.

Homelessness is on the rise in Arkansas. Yes, the rent here is relatively low compared to the rest of the nation. However, poverty here is rampant, good jobs are scarce, wages are low and health care is expensive. Our education level is one of the lowest in the nation, and on a minimum wage job it’s hard for any family to afford housing.

Who are we if we would ignore the suffering of our homeless? We would not be ourselves. Homelessness has no one face because it has all faces.