Mention the word “homeless” and most people probably think of folks huddled in alleyways, panhandling on busy street corners or pushing a shopping cart down the sidewalk. But homelessness isn’t unique to urban areas. It extends into the countryside as well, where people are often called “the forgotten homeless” because they’re so hard to find. One place you can find them is a shelter in Centreville in Saint Joseph County. (Some names have been changed in this story to protect the privacy those we interviewed.)
Keystone Place looks a lot like any other tidy home tucked along Market Street in Centreville. Birds chirp in maple trees blowing in a freshening wind. There are no honking horns, no rush of people or crush of traffic. The scene is quaint and quiet. But Keystone is not a typical home. Even here, in rural Saint Joseph County, in a town of 1,500 people, the 25 rooms in the homeless shelter are almost always full.
Kelli Tackett runs Keystone. She remembers back in the mid-1990s when a group of county residents wanted to open a homeless shelter here. At the time, she thought the effort was a dead end. “My first reaction was, ‘Oh, we don’t have any homeless.’ And I told my husband, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll interview for this job. It probably won’t last long.’ Well, 20 years later, yes, it opened my eyes. We have homeless and we have people who need help.”
"Sarah" and "John" are two of those people. A couple, the two were renting an apartment in Centreville last year when times got tough and they got behind on rent. They lost their home on Christmas Eve, then went to live with Sarah’s mother for a while before winding up at Keystone.
Even though more services exist for the homeless in cities, many rural folks who find themselves on the street choose to stay away from the hustle and bustle. Many reasons exist for why they stay put, to hold tight to comforting roots even in the face of uncertainty. It might be a job, or the support of family or friends. That’s the case for Sarah, a Centreville native who has a three- and five-year-old from a previous relationship. “I grew up here, so I’m used to a small town, so it’s comfortable for me. And then my child is in school here and I work in the county. I work in Three Rivers, so I didn’t want to uproot and lose all that and start over, because I don’t really know Kalamazoo that well.”
But the couple have another reason, too: the safety they feel being in familiar surroundings. John says, when you’re homeless, any control you can have over your circumstances helps take the edge off. “When you’re walking through the doors during your intake, you can sense the safety and the secureness where you don’t have to worry about, like she said, the next person who’s just gonna wake up and – ahh! – go crazy, you know. Like if they do that they have their own room to go crazy in.”
Beverlee DeJonge, the executive director of the Housing Resources Center in Allegan, an agency that helps homeless folks find permanent housing, isn't surprised. “Rural folks who are homeless are generally referred to as ‘the hidden homeless’ because you don’t see them. You will not see them on street corners, you will not see them wandering around the street, you won’t see them under our bridges. We don’t have any of that.”
Instead, they stay with family for short stretches, couch surf at a friend’s apartment, or find a campground or crude form of shelter to get out of the elements. They may be in the shadows but the help rural homeless folks need is very real. Each year, between 900 and 1,200 Allegan County families seek assistance at DeJonge’s agency. That’s out of a county population of 112,000. Federal figures show that 14 out of every 10,000 Americans in rural areas are homeless, compared with 29 out of every 10,000 in urban areas. But while homeless shelters are common in larger cities like Kalamazoo or Grand Rapids, they’re few and far between in rural areas. Allegan and Van Buren counties, for example, don’t have even one shelter. That leaves Keystone as the only rural shelter southwest Michigan. Without it, John says, the family would probably have had to move to Kalamazoo, a decision he’s glad they didn’t have to make.
Sarah and John walk down a dimly lit hallway toward their room, which the whole family shares. It’s tight but cozy and clean, with room enough for a bunk bed for the kids and a double bed for them, but not much else. But in a way that’s the point: it’s supposed to be temporary.
Sarah starts a car purchased through a state program and the couple takes off to pick up the kids from her mom’s house. They’ve been saving money through the jobs they both have and almost have enough to get a place of their own soon, along with housing help from the county.
After that, they plan on marrying and driving that car into a brighter future, pulling it into the driveway of a home they can call their own.