Rural Homelessness in Western Kentucky
It’s one of those cold gray days in Paducah where the rain doesn’t seem to ever stop. For many that means curling up in their homes. For Carrie Brown, that means her new trailer. It’s the first place she’s had to call her own since her uncle passed away last June. Carrie worked as a caretaker for her uncle. But when he died, that meant she lost her job. Soon after, she lost her house and was living out of her car.
“Everybody is just one paycheck away from not having a place to live if you don’t have family.”
Carrie says she had heard about Paducah’s Tent City but was worried about its security. Last September, she was at a soup kitchen where she met two young women who lived in Tent City. Carrie left her broken car behind and moved into the makeshift community.
Since then, the city has shut down Tent because of safety ordinances. Many of the residents were placed into transitional housing. Tent City Missions Coordinator Michele Thomas has been integral in aiding the homeless of Paducah. She’s been working to get people back on their feet for a little over a year. She says it all started when she took her daughters to play golf one day.
“I’m so good [at golf] that I hit my ball into the middle of the woods one day and I found an empty camp. That’s what really first piqued my interest. I just knew that was somebody’s home. I asked several people about it. My husband’s lived here his whole life. He said, ‘We don’t have homeless people in Paducah.’”
Since then, Michele has worked with local government, churches, activists, and financiers to try to establish a homeless shelter in Paducah. Paducah is more attractive than many of the surrounding towns for area homeless. Though still considered rural on a national scale, the relatively urban setting of Paducah promises more for them. Even Brown moved from Marshall County to Paducah after losing her home. It has more soup kitchens, food stamp offices, just more resources overall for the homeless.
Davey King is the Director of Specialized Housing Resources at Kentucky Housing Corporation- which works to distribute finances to programs around the state.
“We fund about 50 projects in the Balance of State; and when I say “Balance of State,” that’s basically 118 counties in Kentucky- which is all of Kentucky except for Louisville-Jefferson and Lexington-Fayette.”
The state is split up like that because of Louisville and Lexington’s sizes. King says the challenges for homeless seen in major cities is very different from rural areas.
"In rural parts of Kentucky, we sometimes refer to the homeless as the “hidden” or the “invisible” homeless."
KHC’s takes an annual census of homeless individuals in the state based on reported numbers at shelters across the Commonwealth. Last year, Region I of KHC’s Continuum of Care (which includes the Pennyrile and Purchase area) totaled at 325 homeless persons with one of the most populated demographics being young women- single mothers, victims of domestic abuse. Brown, a thirty year old, says she met many young women during her stay at Tent City.
"There’s a lot of women that are homeless. More thank you’d think, too. When I was out there, there were seven girls out there. There were two 19 year olds that just didn’t have family, didn’t have nothing, they ended up back there.”
Along with young women, one of the most common features of a homeless Kentuckian is what Michele Thomas calls being “precariously housed.” This means couch surfing, living in cars, condemned buildings, barns, or even just living with relatives. She says that educating the public to these important aspects of homelessness is the biggest challenge people like her face. She says a stereotype of a 40something male with substance abuse problems can cause issues when it comes to asking the public for help.
"They have that same old mental picture of somebody in a cardboard box with a brown paper bag. That’s not the face of homelessness anymore."
Thomas is now working to fund raise for a Paducah shelter she wants to open. She says she’s allocated finances to open it, but operation costs are still unaccounted for. Meanwhile, she and others are working to provide resources to ex-residents of Tent City. Both Thomas and Brown repeatedly mention the supportive network of people helping Paducah’s homeless.
“I think that if I lived in a big city, I’d probably still be staying in the shelter or whatever. They probably wouldn’t have the resources to help you get a job.”
Those resources include classes on personal budgeting, parenting skills, and things like how to dress for a job interview. She says she’s met people who have only hit a small rough patch and just need a little guidance to get back on their feet. She’s also met a man named Sammy who lived for a decade in a makeshift shelter made from railroad ties. He even went through the ’09 ice storm in it.
“We come across people that don’t even have an ID and don’t know how to get one.”
But mostly, she says, the homeless’ biggest need is a supportive base on which they can build their way back into a stable situation.
“It’s like a blink of an eye. You lose your hope. You lose your self-worth. ‘Well this is happening to me because I’m not worth it. I’m a worthless person.’ You don’t see your own value anymore. Somebody has to intervene or it’ll get worse. That’s when you end up with people who have been in a tent in the woods for ten years.”
Carrie Brown now works for a transportation company. She says her few months as a homeless person changed her perspective.
"I think I’ve changed as far as being nicer to people. I think I learned a lot. I think I grew up a lot.”
Brown says she plans to become financially stable and to eventually help Thomas and the Tent City Mission in their pursuit of establishing a homeless shelter and resource center in Paducah.