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05-03-03: Homelessness is a local problem
100 to 200 homeless in two counties, official says

The Daily Standard
    There were many times she thought about just driving her car into Grand Lake St. Marys and ending her troubles. But this homeless middle-aged woman said she couldn't stop herself from hoping something good had to come her way eventually - if she could just hang on.
    As in most rural areas, the homeless in Mercer and Auglaize counties are probably female, white, working and homeless for the first time.
    "To hear city and county officials, you'd think we don't have homeless people, but I'd estimate between 100 and 200 are homeless in Mercer and Auglaize right now," said Jan Bruggeman, case worker for Sources, a government-funded social agency located in Celina that serves both counties.
    For a number of reasons, it's difficult to get an accurate count of homeless people at any given time. Obviously, they have no permanent address and, according to Bruggeman, no agency maintains a roster of homeless persons.
    Bruggeman's guess is based on the number of people served in the agency's food pantry and on the number calling her for help in finding a place to live.
    The case worker said she's turned away about 300 people looking for housing so far in 2003 because funding has been tight. At the time of the interview with Bruggeman, the food pantry, which Sources maintains, was funded through the end of the state's fiscal year (June), but after that it's anyone's guess how the state budget will settle.
    Sources Director Deb Linn said one of the items on the "state's chopping block" is funding for homeless programs. "It looks like we'll be hurting badly next year," Linn said.
    The local program is already hurting as there are no homeless shelters in either county. The closest is in Lima.
    "They have a fit when we send someone up there because, of course, they have their own people to take care of. Plus, their facilities are for men and for women, so any family we send gets split up, something we try never to do," she said.
    Many rural homeless people don't seek help in finding shelter, they just do the best they can to make it through each day and night.
    The Daily Standard last week spoke to Anna, a 60-year-old formerly homeless woman who asked that her name be withheld.
    "I sometimes can't believe everything that happened to me really happened. I always thought of myself as a regular, everyday kind of person who works, pays bills - the whole thing. I never thought I'd be living in my car," said Anna, who looks every bit a regular, everyday kind of person.
     Seventeen years ago she left her abusive husband of 21 years after he tried to kill her and one of their four children.
    A native of Mercer County, Anna found a job locally in her line of work and returned to the area with the two youngest (16 and 17 year olds) children.
    "When the boys and I left Akron I had taken out all my savings and cashed in a small retirement plan from my job. We were able to get a small apartment, nothing grand, but clean," Anna said.
    Her new employer experienced some setbacks and, after only a few months, her job was cut.
    "That job paid enough to keep us going, but I quickly used up my savings and retirement. So we moved in with my sister and it was because of her husband that I ended up homeless," she said.
    She could get a minimum wage job, but that didn't pay enough to support herself and her sons. But taking a low-paying job meant she had no time to look for a better job, so she was without work for several weeks.
    Her brother-in-law, who was separated from her sister, said Anna was just lazy and "too uppity" to take the jobs she was offered. He refused to send money to his estranged wife as long as Anna lived in his former home.
    Anna made arrangements for her boys to live with other relatives. Her sister allowed her to keep her small amount of furniture in the shed, but she had to leave immediately.
    "I packed some clothes, towels, soap and a pillow in my car, which was an old junker, and that's where I lived for the next six weeks," said the resilient 60-year-old woman, who after 17 years, is buying her own small home.
    She found a second-shift job that paid enough for food, gasoline and a small savings to get a place to live, but she still had no resources to move out of her car.
    "Fortunately it was summertime so I didn't have to fight the cold and, with a second-shift job, I could usually sleep during daylight at parks along (Grand Lake)," she said.
    Finding a place to park all night was difficult and a couple times the police discovered her, asked questions and told her to move on.
    "Of course when you hear another car stop near yours in the middle of the night, you have no idea who it might be. I was lucky no harm came my way," she said.
    For six weeks Anna used the park restrooms for bathing. Occasionally she'd sneak a visit to her sister and take a shower.
    "The only way to wash my hair in those little sinks in the park was in sections. One time a lady came in and, of course, I was embarrassed. But I tried to laugh it off that a bird had flown over and dropped 'something' on my head.
    "Parts of it sound funny now. Sometimes I can't believe I really had to live in my car. I've moved on in my life and had help from people I've met. I'll bless them forever," she said adding very few people know her story.
    Urban homelessness affords a certain degree of anonymity as the homeless can move about seeking help in various parts of the city.
    Anna, on the other hand, was trying to start a new life in a small town where news travels fast and her choice not to seek any agency help was based on pride and fear of being found out.
    "That decision was for myself, of course, but also for my kids and family in the area. Maybe that was selfish of me, but I just couldn't stand the thought of everybody knowing.
    "But, I almost can't keep quiet when I hear people say all homeless people are lazy and shiftless or alcoholics and drug addicts. That's just not true," she said looking across her yard at a lilac bush in full, purple bloom.
    She's right. Most rural homeless persons do work at minimum wage or low paying jobs.
    But, those jobs just aren't enough, according to Bruggeman.
    "People have to make choices about how they spend their income. If you're faced with no food for yourself and your family, food becomes your priority. And, unexpected expenses like medical problems are devastating to low wage workers," she said.
    Bruggeman said she works with a number of local landlords in securing low cost housing for her clients, but there are not enough places available locally.
    "That's the definition of homelessness - inability to secure affordable housing. In the present economy, it's not getting better. Even most average income people today are only two or three paychecks away from homelessness," Bruggeman said.


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