Homelessness in Rural Arkansas

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






“Who are we human beings if we ignore the sufferings of others?”

What does homelessness in rural America look like? My ongoing research into the homeless situation in rural Arkansas has led me in directions I never dreamed existed. I thought I could do a few interviews and easily whip up a paper worth reading. Instead I found each interview led me down a new road, led me to a new interview with another organization purporting to help the growing homeless population here in Arkansas. Every avenue that I took seemed to be just another dead end, with no workable solution or closure. This led me to seek out and interview homeless people. In the past, I felt like I was doing my part by rolling down my car window at a stop sign and handing someone some loose change or a few bucks. Like many others, I thought homelessness was easily overcome by a good work ethic and a will to succeed. Like too many others, I blamed the victim and assumed that most homeless people basically chose their own condition by making poor decisions in life.

I wish my first interview had been with the Reverend Mary Lee Downey. Ms. Downey gave me insight into homelessness by providing a better definition of homelessness. 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. 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 live in tents in the woods outside not far from the local Walmart or truck stops.

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. Ms. 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 crushing 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. 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 your 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 wrap around 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 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: instead of relatively few individuals who are chronically homeless, we now have a housing crisis directly related to the ongoing recession sparked by the 2008 global financial meltdown. Ironically, the collapse of 2008 was itself caused in large part by the housing bubble and the predatory mortgage lending practices which made the bubble possible. 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, 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.

I asked Rev. Downey for advice on how to interview the homeless. I was concerned about spreading awareness without causing trouble to the homeless people I interviewed. Rev. Downey reminded me 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.” She also reminded me that many homeless people are not homeless simply because they made poor choices which caused them to be homeless.

For example, people tend to judge Moonee’s mother Halley 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.”

But one statement Rev, Downey made resonated with me the most and left me with an impression that helped me to further my research. “Don’t you dare judge someone else and say:  why don’t you do what I did!” 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’ public radio: KAFB 88.3 host a weekly talk show called Unsheltered Arkansas. One of their weekly radio shows addressed the issue of homelessness among our school age children. And the numbers still blow my mind. 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 2016-2107 school year. They also noted that these numbers were 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 youth and—in addition—268 were unsheltered. Many of these students 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 students. This was thought to be because parents are afraid to report their homeless situation in fear of losing their children.

Rural poverty is the reason for these large numbers of homeless children. These families either live unsheltered or in inadequate housing or 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.

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.

I interviewed one homeless lady who asked me not to mention her name for fear that her family would be embarrassed and angry with her for going public about her situation. But her situation is actually 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 after losing her home, McDonald’s fired her because she smelled sweaty. First she lost her home, then she lost her job because she had no place to bathe or shower. 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. I have since been informed by more than one reliable source that this happens all the time.

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?

In seeking answers and talking with a number of different agencies that purport to help our homeless, I came across a young lady I will refer to as Hope. Hope gave me full permission to use her real name, but after months of sleepless nights I made the decision not to give away her name or her whereabouts. Frankly, given a couple of stories I heard about past actions of the Arkansas Department of Human Services, I am concerned for the wellbeing of her little family if Hope’s real name was made public.

Hope lives in a rural community of Arkansas. She works a full-time job at her local Sonic restaurant. She walks to work. She lives in a dingy motel with her 3 children, all little girls. Hope’s story is like so many I have heard: so many working people in Arkansas are just one paycheck away from homelessness. 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. As I was 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.

I asked to see Hope’s room and to speak with her children. This is a decision that I would later regret. Hope led me to her room in the back of the shabby motel. The room was old and made of cinder blocks and the room’s one small window was set high in the wall above the room. No one could look out of it, and there was very little natural light in the room. Scattered around the floor were Barbie dolls and various cheap toys from kid’s meals. There were two double beds, neither one had sheets on it. The beds took up most of the room, leaving only a small walk space. The room I imagine was only designed for one bed; it had a tiny bathroom as well.

I sat down on the bed and had a moment of cold panic, colder than cinderblock walls and the cold April sunlight on weeds struggling up through cracked blacktop parking lot. My initial thoughts were to run away and run back to—what suddenly seemed like—my fairytale Disney-suburbia world. I sat there mute and anxious, but Hope’s little girls had lots of questions for me. Initially they seemed scared of me, but then they wanted to know if I was there to take them away. I told them no, I was not going to take them away. Hope asks them if I can take their picture. They agree, but as I do it, I feel a sickening feeling in my stomach. The oldest girl who looked to be about 13 told me she wanted to be a model when she grew up. Hope confessed to me she would sometimes leave her children at the hotel so that she could go to work and that the oldest would care for her younger siblings. Hearing this, I told the girls to please never answer any knocks on the door or to leave the hotel room. This woman had let me in to her home to tell her story. Yet, I felt like I was now a party to a crime. I wasn’t sure if this was because I knew she was leaving her children unattended at times or because I wanted to run away and not see their desperate situation again. I left that day with a deep gloomy dread that I still cannot shake. Hope lives on $650 per month and she gets food from her job combined with food stamps. Not enough to live on, much less save up enough to get a permanent residence for herself and her 3 little girls. Someone at the school told Hope not to let her girls use their backpacks to carry books and supplies, because they thought the backpacks might contain roaches from the motel. Hope is a woman who has been let down by the very society she trusted 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 were also let down by their father; who left Hope for another woman.

Next I visited an organization in Russellville, Arkansas called The Russ Buss, which is part of The One Inc. The One Inc. operates four locations in Arkansas. Their mission is to locate and care for their unsheltered homeless neighbors. I had already heard many good things about the Russ Buss. Apparently the Russellville community and The Russ Buss organization, which refers to themselves not as an organization, but as a community, really do a great deal to service their community and do it well. I first met with Nicki Stone, who is director of family operations. Stone informed me that: “The people we service do not have the life skills most people have, for example: changing your car oil. For most of us it’s 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.”

I also met with Fred Teague, director of operations. 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 Buss services. When I asked Teague what his definition of homelessness is he told me: “Our definition is, no place else to go.”  The Russ Buss 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 Buss 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. When I asked Teague what homeless people looked like he said: “They 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 Buss 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 Buss has proudly transitioned hundreds of families over a five-year course. When I last spoke with them in the spring 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. When I asked Teague why more rural communities like Russellville did not have this type of service available to help its communities he said “Most cities do not want to admit they have a homeless problem.” I was told many unsheltered live in tent camps throughout Arkansas and even in its rural communities. 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 station themselves near a Walmart or a truck stop so that they can utilize the bathrooms. There are many homeless people living in tents in the woods all around us. These invisibles, living in the shadows. Did I choose not to know about them? Every day I probably walk past a homeless person and do not see them. Homelessness has no face.

The Russ Buss 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 reminded me “Homelessness does not discriminate. They are us, there is no face to homelessness.” The Russ Buss 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 Buss personnel pride themselves on the fact that when you leave their organization, you’re a more stable member of society.

In North-central Arkansas, I interviewed another volunteer whose organization also part of The One Inc. Jimmy Cooper is a former United States navy officer who started the organization Road to Damascus in Searcy Arkansas to shelter homeless men in his area. When I asked Cooper what homelessness looks like he gave me an example of 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 and had helped pay for their son’s cost of attending medical school. 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.

Road to Damascus got its start from Mission Machine which is another Searcy nonprofit that delivers food to the unsheltered in the Searcy community. 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 they are just like you and me but have had some setbacks in life.

I understand more now than I did at the beginning. One myth that was debunked for me was 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. Like Rev. Downey pointed out to me, 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 myth that I had was that all homeless people looked alike. I was sure I could spot them. In fact, 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 like it is everywhere else in America. 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. Life for low wage workers—and even today’s middle class—is set up for failure. Just because government programs are not working, this is no reason to eliminate or cut the funding to these programs. On the contrary, we need more funding for more and better government programs.

Homelessness looks like no one because it looks like everyone. I met a young man who had been kicked out of his home because he had turned 18 and his mother could no longer afford to support him. He was a nice young man and loved by his school teachers, yet he was homeless and living in a shelter that helps the homeless get back on their feet. 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.