Did you ever hear of anything more hilarious? The big guy really knows how to play the game, doesn't he? October 11, 2006 Far From Big City, Hidden Toll of Homelessness By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD TRINIDAD, Colo. - As the Bush administration promotes a widely praised multibillion-dollar effort to end chronic homelessness in cities like Washington and San Francisco, a growing outcry is rising from rural areas that worsening problems far away from urban centers are being overlooked. Rural homelessness has always taken a back seat to the more glaring problems in cities. Most studies estimate homeless people in small towns account for about 9 percent of the 600,000 or so homeless nationwide. But local officials and advocates for the homeless in small towns say that economic distress in recent years, including closing plants, failing farms, rising housing costs and other troubles, has left more people without homes and in greater need of help. Real numbers are hard to come by because most rural areas, where homeless services often means ad-hoc help from church groups or volunteers, are far behind a parade of cities taking head counts. "We are concerned that the focus on chronic homelessness may have the unintended consequence of shifting services away from families and rural communities," said John Parvensky, executive director of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, one of several groups pushing the federal government to turn more attention to rural areas. Among the homeless here is John Lobato, who offered a tour of his surroundings - the abandoned shuttle bus where he sometimes sleeps, the makeshift assortment of pallets, mattresses and blankets where he and other men pass time, often drinking, and the Purgatoire River, where he bathes. Sometimes he takes his medicine for schizophrenia, Mr. Lobato said, sometimes not. Sometimes he sobers up for a while, but then the bottle calls. "I know I need help," he said, before embarking on a search for a liquor fix at midday in this isolated town 180 miles south of Denver. "But I don't know where to get it." Until recently, many small towns like Trinidad coped with those who panhandled or set up makeshift encampments in the woods with what Lance Cheslock, director of La Puente, a shelter in Alamosa, near here, calls "Greyhound therapy." They handed out bus tickets. "They just send them up to the cities and let them deal with the problem there," said Mr. Cheslock, among the advocates pushing for a new way to finance rural homeless programs. The growing visibility of the problem has made some towns reconsider that attitude and push for local solutions, although they can be expensive and difficult. Rural homelessness "doesn't get enough attention," said Philip Mangano, the executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Bush administration's chief coordinator of homeless services. But Mr. Mangano said the problem had been difficult to assess because rural communities by and large had not chronicled their problems with the data-heavy planning documents the Housing and Urban Development Department and other federal agencies increasingly demand. "Like any profile of the homeless, there is a lot of anecdote and hearsay, but you need data and research to create policy," Mr. Mangano said. To confront the problem, he cited the examples of Washington and Michigan, where every county, many of them rural, has committed to writing a plan to end homelessness. Here in Trinidad, a former old West coal town of 9,000 near the eastern slopes of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, people have long struggled through hard times. The downtown is pockmarked with shuttered storefronts, but new cafes and galleries have opened as the town tries to refashion itself as an artists' colony. Interstate 25, dotted with motels of various quality and shopping centers, slices through Trinidad, leaving tidy Victorian homes rising on a hill on one side and modest ranches, several in disrepair, on the other. Sandi Espinoza, who directs the Open Door Soup Kitchen, in space borrowed from a church, said the organization was serving more meals than ever - families, veterans, men just released from prison and a wide assortment of people smelling of liquor before noon. Some 85 people come daily for lunch, double the number from a few years ago, Ms. Espinoza said. "We need shelter here," said one wobbly man, who when asked where he sleeps, replied, "down under the bridges." There is no homeless shelter, only a few drug, alcohol or mental illness treatment programs for the indigent, and a loose group of church pastors, volunteers and other concerned citizens striving to look after people who have no home. "Pastor helps me out," Mr. Lobato said. "The soup kitchen helps me out and these guys" - he motioned to his disheveled companions - "help me, too." A couple of weeks ago, officials here cheered the establishment of a "transitional housing unit," a single-family home leased from the government for $1 a year where a displaced family can live for a year or so until they get back on their feet, the first such project started here. The organizers say several families, doubled up with relatives or friends, need a place like that. There is nothing for the men living in the tents and shacks that have popped up behind the Wal-Mart, near the river. To seek more stable solutions, a small group was recently formed. With guidance from Becky Vanderslice, an organizer with Housing Justice, a group based in Denver, they gathered around a church conference table and discussed problems that included the need for rehabilitation programs and families unable to make ends meet. Finally, said Cary T. Nelson, pastor at First Christian Church, the group decided to start with the single-family home. Churches and volunteers will subsidize the costs of running the house, a foreclosed property held by the local office of the federal Agriculture Department. They called the house Haven of Hope and have begun searching for a family to occupy it. One applicant, Brenda Holguin, said she hoped to move in with at least two of her four children, who are living with her estranged husband. A domestic dispute has left her homeless, living in a nearby domestic violence shelter, and such a house would help set her on a steady path, Ms. Holguin said. "Having a house, my family in one place, would give me more self-esteem," she said. Ms. Espinoza, who runs the soup kitchen, said she was hoping that local businesses or churches would step forward with donated space for an emergency shelter. The National Coalition on Homelessness, an advocacy group, is considering mounting an effort to make the Agriculture Department, with its many field offices and staff members in rural areas, the lead agency for financing homeless programs outside urban areas. The task currently falls to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "It should be the department of housing and urban-only development," said Michael Stoops, the executive director of the coalition. "We should not give up on HUD, but we need to get other federal agencies involved." Last year, he said, HUD provided $120 million for 700 projects in rural areas, an amount that has remained constant for several years, federal officials said. This year, the federal government has increased direct spending on homeless programs to about $4 billion, up from $2.9 billion and double the spending of five years ago. About 10 percent of that has gone toward a new focus on ending chronic homelessness, Mr. Mangano said. The approach has fired up hope in Denver, San Francisco, Washington and other cities that headway is being made, but it has dismayed advocates in rural areas, where grant-writing expertise and the Talmudic knowledge of federal regulations are lacking. Small towns also lack the network of nonprofit organizations and corporations that often underwrite efforts. "The government wants matching funds and the big city funders only fund the big cities," said Donna Haddow, a member of the Trinidad-Las Animas County Economic Development Board. "There's nothing left by the time we come knocking." Ms. Vanderslice of Housing Justice said a prominent foundation would not finance the new housing program in Trinidad because it had decided to focus most of its resources on Denver. "There is a lot of money to end homelessness in the state," she said. "But a lot is going to the Denver metro area because the mayor there has a 10-year plan." Here, she added, "they are going on open faith." 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