Rural Poverty Often Overlooked

by Will Henry Hartsock

        When we think of a homeless person, we often see in our mind's eye a person pushing a shopping cart with all their earthly possessions, along a city street. Also, we view this person as being dependent upon alcohol, drugs, or being in need of mental health care, or a combination of all three. I don't know the statistics, but only speak from my own personal experience. In January of 1998, I abruptly became homeless, due to my wife forcing me to leave our home.

        In respecting her wishes, I found myself watching the snow fly all around my head, as I left our house, with $20 dollars in my pocket . . . then the real shock. Brown County Ohio has no homeless shelter. I called the local social services director. I explained that I worked part-time as an ethnomusicologist at a local rural college, but had not started the spring semester yet. I told him I had no money nor did I have a place to sleep, except in my old car. His reply was, "I do not consider you homeless . . ." These words stung in my ears as I politely stammered, "Well, thank you sir," and hung up the phone.

        After exhausting all my leads, I found a shelter out in Blue Creek, Ohio, near Portsmouth. A rather long way to drive just to sleep in a warm place. After having stayed there for a month, I came to a gentle realization; these folks with me were not drinking, or using drugs, and had no major mental problems. They were broken and beaten down spiritually. They were young others with little children. They were men who had skills in plumbing, carpentry, etc., hard-working men who had become displaced workers for one reason or the other.

        All of these people had known abuse of the physical and emotional type in past relationships. They all spoke of the sadness of the breakup of their families.

I discovered that being in this environment, and being an active participant and not a casual observer, has given me some valuable insights into the realities of rural homelessness.

        Some of the experts have concluded there are no rural homeless people. That is a sad untruth. The folks I met at Blue Creek shared with me their life stories. They have dreams and aspirations of good jobs and security. They spoke of well-rounded relationships. Their human dignity spoke of spiritual fulfillment and of their desire to share their lives' experiences with others. "When you're on the bottom there's nowhere to go but up," one lady related to me. Yes, being there with my new friends at Blue Creek, sharing the household cheer chores, telling our stories to each other; that was deeply spiritually rewarding.

        As life would have it, I now am a community organizer here in Brown County, in addition to teaching and performing my music part-time. One of our grassroots priority issues now is building a homeless shelter here in Brown County, Ohio. Sometimes we blindly stumble into the arms of grace...

Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Issue 32 February 1999