Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Dr. Elizabeth Carpenter-Song is an associate professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth College. Her research is focused on mental illness and mental healthcare services in the United States, and her first book “Families on the Edge: Experiences of Homelessness and Care in Rural New England” is an ethnographic study of housing insecurity in an under-studied region.
Enjoy our conversation about hidden homelessness, the rural affordable housing shortage, and the necessity of a thriving town center, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: How did you come to study homelessness in rural New England?
Elizabeth Carpenter-Song: The initial point of departure for this work was realizing how little was known about the experience of housing insecurity in rural communities in the U.S. Most research on homelessness in the U.S. had focused on urban settings. I wanted to learn more about what seemed to be very hidden experiences of homelessness in rural areas. In fact, when I first started this research, I would often be asked, “There are homeless people here?” when I described the research. Since that time, awareness of our regional housing crisis has grown.
My goal in this work has been to apply my training as an anthropologist working in close partnership with individuals and communities to learn about experiences that are often hidden and to engage with the complex lived experiences of people impacted by poverty and housing insecurity in rural New England. As I spent more and more time with the families who participated in the research, my initial questions about families’ experiences of homelessness expanded to include their transitions into the community following an episode of homelessness and their experiences navigating through health and social service systems. I wanted to understand how families fared over time and this led me to continue working closely with each of the families over many years. This longitudinal approach has now provided insight into what supports or erodes opportunities for greater security and stability for families in rural New England.
DY: What are the most important differences in experiences of rural and urban homelessness? Are there any commonalities that might seem surprising to an outsider?
ECS: Homelessness in urban areas of the U.S. is much more visible. In many American cities, it is common to see and interact with people who may be unhoused. In contrast, in rural areas, homelessness is much less visible on a daily basis. In our rural towns and villages in New England, there are encampments of unhoused people, but these tend to be out of sight. People experiencing homelessness in rural areas move across a variety of settings and may camp in the woods, sleep in cars, or double-up with friends or family for periods of time. In the context of families, which were the focus of my research, parents go to great lengths to avoid literal homelessness with their kids and, as a result, move frequently between different settings to access shelter. In rural areas, challenges related to housing are compounded by transportation challenges when people move to more remote towns to gain access to more affordable housing. But, this places people at risk of being isolated from networks of support and creates challenges for finding employment and meeting basic needs within small rural towns.
The main commonality between experiences of homelessness in rural and urban areas is that homelessness is a housing problem. As a society, we are now experiencing the consequences of decades of underinvestment in affordable housing. Runaway real estate valuations and high costs of living, coupled with a lack of adequate housing stock, have created a common scenario across the U.S. in which safe and affordable housing is out-of-reach for more and more people.
DY: Can you describe the “blurred edges” of homelessness? How did your understanding of your own project change as the people in it moved continuously in and out of stable housing?
ECS: As I engaged with families over time, I witnessed how they experienced periods of greater and lesser housing stability. Some families would be stably housed for months or even years and then have this stability disrupted. These disruptions included a wide variety of experiences: divorce, the worsening of mental health conditions, losing a job, moving to live closer to networks of support, landlords not renewing leases, and involvement with the criminal legal system. Families would then be facing another acute housing crisis that threatened to render them homeless.
This is what I describe as the “blurred edges” of homelessness: families moved in and out of periods of relative housing stability and instability. For the families with whom I partnered in this research, homelessness was episodic, housing insecurity was chronic. Through this work, I am trying to disrupt stereotypical understandings of “homelessness” that view this as a static, unchanging condition. Instead, I describe the porous boundary that exists between the fragile stability of “making do” in the context of poverty and falling into homelessness.
My own understanding of the project shifted over time. When I began this work, it was initially designed as a 12-month study. Toward the end of that initial period, all of the families in the study had moved out of the family shelter and into the community. At the time, I was confronted with the question of whether I was still studying homelessness if all of the families were housed. But I was drawn to learn more about families’ experiences in the community following an episode of homelessness and so I continued the research. If I had stopped the study after 12 months, I would have had a fundamentally different understanding of families’ experiences of homelessness — the subsequent experiences of chronic housing insecurity and how families moved in and between various settings over time would have been invisible to me.
DY: You outline this problem in the book in which, as housing gets cheaper in your subject area, it pretty inevitably gets further from crucial services and opportunities. Are there any good models for reversing that trend? Do you know of any small towns that have become more walkable or developed more reliable public transportation networks?
ECS: This is one of the big challenges we face in rural areas. In the book, I advocate for increasing housing density closer to town centers as a way to mitigate transportation challenges as well as to create more opportunities for accessing services and being integrated in the community. In the region I write about, the towns of Lebanon, New Hampshire and White River Junction, Vermont are good examples of efforts to have mixed-use residential and commercial space, greater housing density, walkable downtown areas, and access to the local free bus service.
It is important to note that these two towns are relatively larger than many of the small villages in rural New England and are proximate to the major centers of employment in the region. Yet, I think these two settings can still serve as useful examples of how to create vibrant and accessible town centers in a rural region.
DY: Did you ever feel any tension between assessing your interlocutors on their own terms and translating their experiences into academic vocabulary? How were you thinking about that when it came time to synthesize 10 years of relationships into chapters and findings?
ECS: In my work, I am always striving to translate the insights that I have been gifted from the community into relevant lessons for practical action. While it is an academic book and I’m drawing on concepts and approaches from my training as a medical anthropologist, I wrote the book with a broad audience in mind. The anthropological concepts that I apply in the book provided points of departure for understanding families’ experiences over many years. In the book, I’ve done my best to faithfully render the complex and often painful experiences that families have shared with me in the service of identifying opportunities to collaboratively support families surviving in poverty in rural communities.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.