What does one pay check mean to you?
Does it represent trimming back on this year's vacation or cutting back on luxuries for awhile?
Or is it more vital than that?
Times Observer photo by Eric Paddock
Bridging the gap
Faith Inn, and other transitional housing facilities like it, are one means of bridging the gap between true homelessness and a place of someone’s own.
Does it mean money for heat, groceries, water or even rent?
According to Julia Roque, for many, all that stands between the surety of their own roof and the uncertainty of not knowing where they'll lay their head that night is one pay check.
Roque should know, as the community service director for the Warren-Forest Counties Economic Opportunity Council (EOC) she sees the reality of rural homelessness every day.
It's a reality, she says, that remains largely invisible.
"The homeless in Warren are not what you see in the movies with people pushing carts full of their possessions," Roque said. "In Warren, the homelessness is hidden. You could be standing next to someone at Walmart and not know they're homeless. It's everyday people you see walking down the street."
Roque said rural homelessness takes many forms, most not as obvious to the casual observer as their urban counterparts.
Roque noted rural homelessness includes single people "couch surfing" from one friend or relative to another and students evicted from or leaving their homes due to family troubles. It's multiple families sharing single-family homes in an effort to make ends meet and people leaving prisons and hospitals with nowhere to go upon their release.
"There are literally homeless people who are sleeping in their cars, staying in apartments with others but not on the lease or camping out with nowhere to go," Roque said.
There are also many people on the edge of homelessness making decisions whether to pay rent or feed their families, Roque said.
"You could be right beside them and not know they're worried about where they're going to stay that night," Roque said. "Warren County is actually very lucky. It cares for its neighbor, but it cares for what is visible. Warren County homelessness is not visible. Some of these people have jobs. They just aren't making the rent. But the community doesn't see it. They don't provide for it because they don't see the need."
At first glance, you might think rural homelessness is near non-existent in Warren County, but the numbers back Roque up.
In 2011, the EOC provided assistance to 528 individuals comprising 281 families.
Roque said that is just a small sample of the true number of Warren County residents either homeless or in imminent danger of becoming homeless.
"This isn't including people who walked in (to EOC) or called and were not eligible during initial screening because of residency requirements, ability to follow up with housing plans or people referred to other agencies that could help them," Roque noted.
She said referrals can be sent to a laundry list of agencies, making true numbers difficult to track. The itinerant nature of the homeless population you tend to move around more if you don't have a specific home compounds the problem.
The numbers also fail to include people incarcerated, in state facilities or in mental hospitals who are not being released due to having nowhere to go or no one to release them to. Nor do they include those who have never sought help for their situation, for whatever reason.
The agency also only deals with the adult homeless population, so homeless individuals under the age of 18 aren't tracked by the agency if they're on their own. The Warren County School District, however, reports it classifies 85 students as currently being homeless out of a total enrolled population of 4,667 students.
"It's safe to say the number of people in a homeless situation in Warren County could be double or triple those numbers," Roque said.
While hard numbers are hard to come by for rural homelessness, numbers for those in poverty, and therefore likely at risk, are not.
According to 2010 census data, Warren County has a population of approximately 41,815 people. An estimated 14.1 percent of those people lived in poverty, or approximately 5,896 people. A total of approximately 20.2 percent of the county's population is under 18, or approximately 8,446 people. Of the more than 8,000 individuals under 18 in the county, an estimated 21.4 percent are impoverished, or 1,807 people.
Using Roque's number and official census data, the EOC alone has provided assistance for approximately 9 percent of the county's impoverished population.
It also leaves just over 5,000 Warren County residents likely in danger of homelessness with nearly a third, 30.1 percent, of them children.
Roque pointed out it's no great leap from getting by to homeless and it could happen to anyone. It could be friends or family, it could even be you.
"I tell people, 'Just because I'm sitting at this end of the table doesn't mean I won't be on your side of the table sometime'," Roque said. "Many people who are employed are just one pay check away from being homeless."