IN FOCUS: Hidden Homeless in Rock Co.

Published: Feb. 1, 2018 at 10:52 PM CST
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With a lack of public transportation and affordable housing in small and rural communities, people facing homelessness experience unique challenges.

"These tracks are pretty fresh," said Marc Perry with Community Action Inc. while searching through the snow.

On a late January winter night, Perry and volunteers were on a mission.

"Something like this, you could crawl into that space," said Perry.

Even if they can just find one person, it's one person less sleeping on the streets. Perry organized the Rock County homeless count in Beloit and said often times the struggle is to find people when most want to stay hidden.

"In smaller communities like ours and in rural communities, the homeless population stay really well hidden and under the radar to try to avoid any public or police contact," said Perry. "A lot of those individuals are still scrambling. They're couch hopping with family, in vehicles on the street, or finding money to scrape together to pay for hotel rooms for a period of time.”

At Twin Oaks Shelter for the Homeless in Darien, Shelter Manager Elizabeth Knapp-Spooner said in 2017, 207 people called Twin Oaks home. 97 of were children. People are allowed to stay for 60 days.

"We've had people from all walks of life. We've had people with master's degrees that something medically went wrong," said Knapp-Spooner.

Nolan Long and his family have a spot to stay at Twin Oaks for now.

"Especially when you got a family with a fifth addition on the way it definitely means a lot," said Long.

Wait lists are an unfortunate reality for the homeless. At Twin Oaks, the wait is usually two to six months.

"That wait list is the biggest burden on your shoulders. You're like please, please open something up we need to go somewhere," said Deanna Drost.

Drost, along with her husband and two daughters, were at House of Mercy in Janesville before being at Twin Oaks.

"I used to be one of those people that would judge someone that would ask for spare change," said Drost. "We used to have a nice big house and two cars in the garage and great jobs. Just one thing after another led to us losing our home and my husband losing his job, and we just didn't have the means to live like we were living… Things started going downhill, so we stayed with family members. It becomes like a snowball effect that you can't stop and you're spending all your money on gas or paying people to stay on their couch. It's a vicious cycle and you can't get out of it," said Drost.

Drost is a hotel housekeeper, but said it still isn't enough to pay the bills.

"People are like 'oh get a job' and I'm like, 'I have a job,'" said Drost.

"Yeah, it's extremely difficult," said Long.

Long said he was first homeless not long after getting out of the U.S. Army in 2011. Since then, he said he has been in and out of homelessness while battling depression.

"It hurts, especially knowing the fact that I'm not the one necessarily providing for my family. It hurts me every single day knowing that we are in this shelter," said Long.

During the Rock County count, 10 people were found spending the night outside. This is just a fraction of the at least 300 homeless people at any given time in Rock County, according to the Rock County Homeless Intervention Task Force.

The point in time count is conducted two times a year, in July and January. Numbers from the homeless count are reported to the State of Wisconsin. Then, the state reports the number to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Information gathered during the count is used to secure both state and federal grants to help provide housing services.

In Janesville, the wait list for the rent assistance program is closed. It is open in Beloit but it usually takes anywhere from 12 to 24 months to be housed through Beloit Housing Authority.