VOICES: Addressing “Hidden Homelessness”

I started doing field work with the homeless population four years ago. I provide support and supplies to people who live in the woods and fields, under county bridges, and along the river and railroads in small towns and suburbs in the Dayton area. Most are single middle-aged white men who grew up here, graduated from high school, and attended trade or professional schools. Some are veterans. Many have been living outside for several years. As I’ve come to know them, I’ve learned that they are typically traumatized and suffering from PTSD. Living outside is their way of coping. Even though they have families here, they isolate themselves. Most are addicted to meth, another essential means of coping. They are the hidden homeless. Few people are even aware of them and so their specific needs are usually not addressed in programs for the homeless population. (I refer to them as rural homeless to differentiate from those who live in towns, shelters, cars, and hotels.)

I’m a chemist in medical diagnostics with extensive experience in field work. I earned a Ph.D. at The Ohio State University and completed my post-doctoral work at Harvard School of Public Health. As my field work with the rural homeless developed, I learned that very little, if any, research has been conducted on this subset of the homeless population. We need to learn — and do — more. Helping the rural homeless is a challenge due to their severe trauma, fear of people, drug addiction, and hopelessness.

Story of One Man

His place was deep in the woods, so far back I couldn’t hear the cars on the highway. It was silent out there except for the murmur of water from the nearby river.

He had a homemade tent made with a tarp, and several lean-tos made with ropes, bark, and metal sheets. He slept in there covered with old blankets and clothes. On cold winter nights he buried himself in an old large tree stump that he had hollowed out. He created a bathroom with a naturally fed spring that flushed out waste. He drank water from the river. On rainy days, he hung plastic shopping bags in the trees to collect rainwater. He had the company of several cats.

He was a little middle-aged hippie. He loved peace signs, tie dyed clothes, brightly colored socks, and yellow or orange nail polish. He liked necklaces made of anything he found that meant something to him. He stood for love, animal and human rights, and freedom of expression. He got food from the ‘take what you need’ blessing boxes, soup kitchens, and church meal programs. He was a free spirit who made people smile.

He was an artist. He drew and painted the natural world that he loved. He also favored religious subjects. All his artwork was full of positivity and happiness.

His appearance marked him as a rural homeless man. He was white, forty years old, average height, very thin, and always trembling. His clothes hung on him, and his uniform was baggy pants and a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. His hair was huge, a mass of dreadlocks that he wrapped up in a headband to keep from falling into his face. All the hair and unkempt beard hid most of his face. His eyes told the story. They were open windows to his hopelessness, fear, exhaustion, and deep sadness.

He spent his time creating art. And then sometimes I’d find him crouched down, propped up against a tree, shaking, with his head buried in his arms. He could stay that way for hours, lost in his despair. He was routinely harassed in town. He explained it away with “I look a little suspicious.”

He was a townsperson before he became one of the rural homeless. He had five children and was a new grandpa too. Unlike most rural homeless, he maintained some contact with family. On Sunday afternoons he met his children in a parking lot, sitting on the pavement under a light post. His mother-in-law brought the kids. Upon arrival, they jumped out of the van, settled down around him, and showed him their schoolwork. They loved being together, laying around like they were on the living room floor. He was fun, made them laugh, promoted their individuality, and encouraged their creativity. He was kind; he was polite; he was patient; and he told the people in his life that he loved them. Hard as it was to accept, his family understood that it was impossible for him to just come home again.

He died at the age of forty and his family had a memorial service. The rural homeless community still speaks of him, a vulnerable, broken man with a core of goodness and positivity, too.

His story is representative of the twenty-four men that I have come to know over the years — a hometown boy, alienated from society, drug addicted, unhealthy, expecting nothing from society, resourceful, and living each day in survival mode.

How to Help the Rural Homeless

Providing help is a challenging project. This cohort is small in number, mostly hidden from view, and deeply traumatized. They are fearful, addicted, and appear anti-social. They may resist attention and assistance until you build trust over time. They are fragile in many ways, have low self-esteem, and expect little help from anyone. I have learned that they deeply appreciate genuine care and assistance. It is possible to help improve their lives. It is worthwhile and satisfying work.

All homeless people share basic needs, but the rural population have needs that are unique to living in nature. For instance, simply keeping dry is imperative. Rain and snow result in wet, soaked clothes and shoes, which is often all they have. This leads to deep skin infections, foot fungus, and frostbite wounds.

Agencies, churches, and individuals can help by providing basic goods and food. Consider layers of clothing—t-shirts, hoodies, sweatpants, socks, shoes and boots, coats, neck gaiters, gloves, and hats. Essentials for living outside include rain ponchos, insect repellents, lip balm, hygiene products, and basic first aid supplies. Backpacks and food storage bags (1 or 2.5 gallon) are good for keeping things dry. Bike repair kits are also great because bikes are their mode of transportation.

This group doesn’t cook or store food, so donations should be things that can be eaten “as is.” Most have mouth sores due to meth use, so food needs to be soft and not acidic, too. Basics include bottled water, individually wrapped cheese and peanut butter crackers, soup, canned pasta, peanut butter, soft protein bars, canned tuna and chicken, gravy, fruit and pudding cups, and bread are always good choices.

Community groups can supply food through blessing boxes. These are attractive, arty boxes placed in areas frequented by the hungry and homeless. They operate on a “leave what you can and take what you need” basis. The boxes are sometimes the only accessible food for the rural homeless who are fearful of entering soup kitchens and meal services.

Churches and nonprofits can provide meal services for the hungry and homeless. The rural homeless who gather the courage to come usually enjoy these meals. They like sitting at a table in a chair and eating on plates with utensils. I have seen them actually relax and enjoy the social interaction of a seated meal with other people. Meal services can help build trust and lead them to other services (medical, mental health, and recovery).

One challenge of working with the rural homeless is simply getting the word out about services they may need. I’ve found that flyers are the best way to let them know about everything from free meals to free haircuts. I carry a small supply of flyers with me when I am in the field. I also leave them in soup kitchens and meal services.

If you would like additional information about the rural homeless of our area, please email me at jyoderphd@gmail.com for a free copy of my 50-page booklet, “Homeless People Who Live in the Woods: A Guide to Who They Are and How Your Community Can Help.”

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