Canvass sheds light on 'invisible' homeless in rural areas
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A mother and her school-age son sleep in a pickup truck at a park.
A young, pregnant girl and her boyfriend live out of a car, which they move around the outskirts of Butler.
A middle-aged man camps in the woods.
They're among Butler County's homeless people, a growing but largely invisible group, that disproves the notion that homelessness is confined to big cities.
A four-hour canvass of the county to recognize August as Homeless Awareness Month uncovered nine homeless people. Last year's canvass found one.
For this year's canvass, 30 volunteers were dispatched from 5 to 9 p.m. Aug. 18 with the mission to find people in need of housing.
In addition to the situations described above, the volunteers found two middle-aged men living out of a car in the Connoquenessing area; a middle-aged man living in his car near Harrisville; and a woman in her 40s who had been sleeping in her car parked along the interstates.
Some told stories of rejection and joblessness. Others were reluctant to share the details of how they came to be in their current situation. The commonality was none had a place to call home. All were offered emergency housing and follow-up services.
On any given day in Butler County, more than 100 people live in grant- or charity-subsidized temporary housing because they have nowhere else to go, said Jennifer Bindernagel, of Butler County's Center for Community Resources, an emergency housing provider.
Dozens more are in need, she said.
Ms. Bindernagel, who works extensively with homeless people, said it's difficult to a put a number on the problem because in a rural area like Butler County, people spread out and come and go.
"I call it our invisible issue," she said. "In rural areas, homeless people aren't staying on Main Street. They're sleeping in barns, in parks, in the woods, along the interstates. It's easier to miss."
She believes the problem of homelessness is growing in the county. "We're hearing more stories; we're getting more phone calls," she said.
The center for community resources works in partnership with the county's other social service agencies that deal with homelessness. In addition to the canvass to recognize Homeless Awareness Month, the partnership -- known as the Butler Local Housing Options Team -- hosted a variety of activities to turn a spotlight on the problem that often hovers in the shadows.
The group slept in a "shantytown" in Butler Township, held a 5K run, collected donations and set up information booths at events.
For the shantytown sleep over, 55 people, including state Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Butler, slept outside Pullman Plaza the night of Aug. 11. The event raised $1,171 from sponsors.
The money will be used for items that grants can't pay for, Ms. Bindernagel said.
"We can get grants for shelter, but maybe not for a prescription for someone we're bringing in one night or clean underwear or shoes that don't have big holes in the soles," she said.
Last year, the event raised $950 from 42 sponsored individuals.
"It's growing and we're very pleased about that," she said.
The donation collection outside Wal-Mart in Butler Township on Aug. 9 was successful, Ms. Bindernagel said.
"People were generous," she said, but more is needed.
The agencies are looking for donations of blankets; sheets; cleaning products; hygiene products, especially deodorant; kitchen items, especially pots, pans, and utensils; and money. Donated items do not have to be new but should be in a condition that "someone would be willing to use," Ms. Bindernagel said. To contribute, call her at 724-431-0097.
In addition to the center for community resources, the partnership includes Catholic Charities, Lighthouse Foundation, Salvation Army, Victims Outreach Intervention Center, Butler Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Butler County Housing Authority, the Department of Public Welfare and a variety of agencies that deal with mental health and drug and alcohol problems.
Ms. Bindernagel also coordinates the HOPE Project, which stands for Housing Opportunities Promote Empowerment, on behalf of the center for community resources, Catholic Charities, the Grapevine Center and the Butler VA Center.
She said many of the agencies that deal with homeless people have had funding cutbacks. "But what's good about Butler County is that all of us as providers work really well together to utilize our limited resources in the best way. I have a little bit, Catholic Charities has a little bit. ... We all put our little bits together to make sure people are being serviced," she said.
"This is all about doing everything we can to bring attention to the problem, to reach people who need services, and to raise the money we need."
First Published September 3, 2006 12:00 am