They're not on a grate, but they're still homeless

November 25, 1990|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

TOLLESON, Ariz. -- The "home" for Roberta Sims is a rough treehouse. It is built precariously of old wood and stones that climb up a shrub in a dry riverbed.

She uses a ladder to reach her perch. Friends bring her water. She cooks on a campfire a few feet away, with a wary eye out for snakes, lizards or scorpions.

"It's God's zoo," said the 46-year-old woman. "It's not cozy by no means."

Mark Pearl's home for three months was his car. His two children, 8 and 9, and their dog slept in the back seat or on a blanket on the ground near Laughlin, Nev.

"We tried to make a big game of it," said the 33-year-old father. "The kids don't complain much."

David Bowling lived in a ramshackle trailer with no water near Morehead, Ky., for which he paid $75 a week. When his first son was born, they moved into a converted barn. "It's not the best, but we get by," he said.

These rural poor are not likely to be counted in a census of homeless. The crisis they face in finding a suitable place to live is not as visible as is the homeless man on a city street pushing a grocery cart full of his clothes.

Homelessness wears a bucolic cloak in the country. That is one reason rural poverty often does not bring the same alarm as do the problems of urban poor. The homeless in the country are hidden; they are not camped on a city steam grate in full public view. In rural areas, it may be hard even to define homelessness.

"In rural areas, you find people in houses that you can barely call houses. People who live in barns, in goat sheds," said Bev Merrill, who runs a shelter in Covington, Ky.

In the country, "there is a lot of doubling up and tripling up," said Michael Stoops of the National Coalition of Homeless. People who lose their homes move in with relatives or friends. Mr. Stoops calls them the "couch homeless." They sleep where they can.

Leisa Brown lived with her two sons and a nephew in an old wood house in Morehead until it fell apart. The bedrooms just broke off the house. She moved her family in with her parents, but that home had slipped off its foundation, and "we had to sit on the wood stove to keep warm," she said. "And we had rats."

"In rural areas, you can live worse and get away with it," said Peter G. Beeson, director of planning for the Nebraska Department of Public Institutions. "You can live in substandard housing and poor conditions because you are invisible."

A survey by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1985 found one in four rural poor living in inadequate housing. The survey was faulted by critics as too conservative because, they said, it under-counted homes without plumbing.

Rural areas often have little subsidized or "affordable" housing. Because wages are low, rural poor find it hard to meet the rent. The Housing Assistance Council found that a third of the rural poor pay 70 percent of their income for housing.

If they lose their homes, some migrate to the cities to find shelters, soup kitchens and other services. But many resist that move.

"Sometimes they have a little camper. Sometimes they live in their car. Sometimes they find an abandoned bus. One guy built a three-room shack on the riverbed," said Judy A. Almy, who runs a homeless program in Phoenix with social workers who comb the nearby desert.

"A lot of them are afraid of being in cities," said Louisa Stark, a board member of the National Coalition of Homeless. "So they live in campgrounds."

Groups such as Frontier Housing of Morehead attempt to provide suitable housing for the rural poor.

"For children, it means a decent, warm place over their heads," said Tom Carew, who runs the program. "They have a place to bathe. They have a place that's warm in the winter and the lights work.

"I won't say a decent house on its own will move someone out of poverty," he said. "But it's part of the equation."

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