The homelessness rate is lower overall in rural areas, but the U.S. Interagency Council on Homeless says poor rural communities have some of the nation's highest homeless and poverty rates.

[imgcontainer] [img:rural_homeless_map.jpg][source]Source: Geography of Homelessness[/source] The homelessness rate is lower overall in rural areas, but the U.S. Interagency Council on Homeless says poor rural communities have some of the nation’s highest homeless and poverty rates. [/imgcontainer]

The unfolding scene before our small group was about to become surreal.

We were attending a professional meeting in a Western city and had some free time to take a walk at dusk through a riverside park.

As we walked, something went off in my brain. I became aware of three hikers some distance away. At first, I thought they were recreational hikers, speaking loudly as they were ending their day on the trail.

Then I became conscious of something in the tone of their voices: anger. Something else replayed from my unconscious memory. The hikers had not come across the nearby bridge, but from underneath it.

No one else in my group seemed to be picking up on what was happening. So I quietly shepherded my friends toward a more brightly lit area as the voices of the hikers got louder. It was becoming evident from their clothes and gear that these were probably cross-country hikers, unemployed and homeless.

The surreal part of the scene was the conversation as the leader of the three chastised a fellow hiker. In reaction to the verbal abuse, the other fellow bawled like a baby, or perhaps like a lost lamb.

As the three walked away from us toward the city, the group’s leader banished the third man from the group. When the two remaining hikers left, the lone man wailed for a few moments and then ran up the street after them. His plaintive cries faded away.

The most chilling part of the whole 90 seconds or so were the words of the leader: “You remember what I did to that guy in Minneapolis a month ago? …”

We were all thankful we had moved away to a safer place.

In the two years since all of this took place, the memory has haunted me, triggering questions about homelessness, especially in rural areas, and life on the road in the brutal political economy that characterizes the 21st century United States. Recently, the issue seems to have come to the surface again.

Some observations:

  • Rural homeless tends to be more invisible than urban homelessness. You occasionally see someone riding a bicycle or hiking along the highway. One of my friends who is a railway engineer says he has come across free riders on his trains. You certainly don’t see the widespread numbers of wanderers as you might see in the Depression-era photos of the Farm Security Administration or the cinematic treatment of Sullivan’s Travels. Our society effectively hides poverty.
  • According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, rural, like urban homelessness, can be a result of poverty, inadequate housing, domestic violence, mental illness and the invisible injuries of combat. But the current economy seems incapable of addressing these issues, even as governments have cut social services in rural areas.
  • The folks in Washington note that rural residents are between 1.2 and 2.3 times more likely to be poor than urban residents. Cold numbers these, indicative of continuing rural geographic discrimination that likely will continue in the future because of the reglobalizing impacts of the grinding, ongoing recession.
  • The council notes that poor rural communities have some of the highest rates of homelessness and poverty in the country. As the most recent poverty figures show, conditions have only grown worse in many places since 2007.
  • Nearly one in five rural counties has a poverty rate of 20% or more, according to the council. These high-poverty communities often have limited affordable housing, so many people live in overcrowded conditions and dilapidated structures. Sadly, these are rural slums. Some may not see people in this situation as homeless, but they are.
  • A rural rental home is twice as likely to be substandard, compared with an urban dwelling, the council says. A drive through almost any rural town or small city will reveal substandard housing that can be shocking in its extent.
  • Substandard housing and homelessness extends to American Indian communities, where rates of overcrowded or unfit housing are even higher than elsewhere, according to the council.

President Obama has stated that he will do something about wealth inequality in the United States. So, to the president who extended the tax cuts for the rich a few years ago, and who signed on to ending extended unemployment benefits, and who approved food stamp cuts in the new Farm Bill, here is my plaintive plea:

There is still time for redemption for your administration, Mr. President.

Please use your remaining time in office well.

We do not need blue ribbon panels.

We do not need empty words. 

Here is a chance to spark the audacity of hope.

We desperately need your leadership and your gift of speech.

The poor need an advocate, someone who can lay the groundwork for a national change of heart.

Please. Use the presidency as a bully pulpit against the meanness toward poor people that is rampant in wide segments of our national life.

Talk openly and sincerely about the suffering of the poor in this country. You can urge people to stop blaming the poor for their situation.

If Congress won’t go along (and likely it won’t) in funding effective anti-poverty measures, the least you can do is educate Americans about the human, social and economic costs of poverty that are dragging our nation down.

Address the national embarrassment of poverty in the midst of wealth and help us rediscover what is truly best in ourselves.

Meet with the poor in our communities and help them find more ways to help themselves.

The time is now.

You can do it.

Yes you can.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

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