COLUMN: "Rural homeless: out of sight, out of hope?"

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, March 7, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. It was originally written for last week but rescheduled to run today.

Rural homeless: out of sight, out of hope?
By Aaron J. Brown

It’s easy to forget that poverty, mental illness and personal crisis leave people homeless in every corner of Minnesota – including here on the Iron Range – and those affected don’t always fit neatly into stereotypes.

“While most people think of homelessness as the stereotypical chronic alcoholic in an urban area, the reality is that half the homeless in Minnesota are children, and one-third of the homeless are in Greater Minnesota,” said Liz Kuoppala, Executive Director, Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. Of those homeless children, Kuoppala said, many are dependent upon a single mother fleeing domestic violence.

Kuoppala, also an Eveleth City Councilor, was busy recently, not just connecting homeless people across the state to services, but in guiding a tour of analysts from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office as they investigated the matter of rural homelessness here on the Iron Range two weeks ago. These officials met with public officials, service providers, but most importantly with homeless Iron Rangers in a quest to recommend the best way to improve current government practices.

“We heard from people who slept in tents, in abandoned houses, even at their job with no one knowing,” said Kuoppala.

Indeed, according to Kuoppala, that’s the challenge of addressing homelessness in northern Minnesota. In large cities, the federal government identifies homelessness based on the number of people reporting to shelters. With no major overnight shelters in the region the federal government doesn’t have any way of knowing how many people really are homeless.

Part of that, Kuoppala said, is the culture of rural, working class places like northern Minnesota.
“People here don’t think of themselves as homeless,” said Kuoppala. “They just think of themselves as down on their luck. Rural people are hearty, tough, and pride gets in the way of getting help. They’re more likely to hunker down in the woods or an abandoned school bus.”

And while this may be preferable to people lying destitute on the streets of our towns, the fact remains: many homeless people struggle with medical, mental health and transportation issues that prevent them from gaining employment and security, something they want and everyone else wants for them.

That’s why the recent federal GAO tour exploring rural homelessness is only part of the story. A much more troubling development continues here in Minnesota. In the state’s staggering $1.2 billion budget deficit, the General Medical Assistance Care program – slashed to the core in Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed budget, was restored in the legislature only to be vetoed again by the governor. DFL lawmakers attempted an override last week that fell short.

The GMAC program is expensive, as any health care in the country tends to be. However, it’s sometimes the only program that covers medical and mental health needs for people who want off the streets and into our economy, an action that has the dual benefit of being more cost-efficient and morally defensible. Cast a stone on the Iron Range and you just might hit a friend, family member or neighbor in just such a situation, a person most likely enduring his or her struggle quietly.

Kuoppala described the plight of one low income woman who had spent a lifetime struggling with untreated mental illness and who finally received medication. The treatment was helping her adjust to a new life of possibility, but with the specter of losing her prescription drug coverage as soon as April 1, she lives in dread of returning to homelessness and despair.

“She told us that if she knew that her treatment would just be taken away, she almost wishes she had never tried in the first place,” said Kuoppala. “Because now she can’t imagine returning to the life she once knew.”

Minnesota might be a cold place, but Minnesotans don’t have cold hearts. No excuse, particularly a political one, will suffice for failure to solve this problem. Nor should we pretend that the rough landscape of northern Minnesota absolves us from knowing the struggles of our fellow people and helping them.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Read more at his blog or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.


  1. Anonymous says

    Interesting Aaron…Any sane human does not want to see people suffer, and most want to help them. However…far to many want to help them with someone else’s money.

    Most Range politicans want to put their hand in someone else’s pocket. They say, “You are hurting, and that makes me feel bad. I will raise taxes to help you, and then I will feel better (plus I will have your vote).”

    That’s certainly the easiest way to do it, and it’s politically popular.

    But it’s not what Jesus taught. More conservatives than liberals seem to get this. Arthur Brooks, the government professor at Syracuse, pointed this out in his book Who Really Cares, which compares charitable contributions and reveals that conservatives out-give liberals by 30 percent, and on 6 percent less income.

    So what did Jesus teach? Tom asks us to contrast the “more government” mentality with the parable of the good Samaritan.

    The Samaritan put the injured man on his own donkey, and he dipped into his own pocket to procure the man’s care. It’s important to note Jesus did not blame the government for failing to put police patrols on the road to Jericho. Neither did He blame the government for failing to pay for the man’s health care. His answer to the question that provoked the story — “Who is my neighbor” — is to point out the Samaritan’s personal, voluntary sacrifice to help a stranger who probably hated him in the first place.

    The question of who’s responsible for helping the poor is one of the most divisive in politics. It seems that liberals like Obama believe that the government should do so in an almost unlimited capacity. He might be a Christan, but he’ll have a hard time making that case from Scripture.

  2. Anonymous says

    Oops – Christian, not Christan…nor Muslim

  3. I just typed a lengthy response to your comment that (trust me) was reasonable and measured and in disagreement with you. You might have found it interesting and we could have started a lively discussion.

    The internet ate my comment, I swear.

    So …. I disagree. I understand your point, but I disagree that there is a better model to serve the “unservable” than a centralized government operating beneath a 10 percent administrative cost. If you have evidence to the contrary, I am all ears.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Anonymous says

    First, as Jesus said, “the poor will be will us always” so this ain’t going away.

    However, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed. To the contrary, it must be addressed. The only way to do so however is individually and from the heart. It’s the only way that will have a world changing impact. Mother Teresa is the classic example of individual giving and the impact it can have. Mary Jo Copeland is a closer to home example. There are millions of others.

    No government program can compete with this. “Government” doesn’t have any time, talent or money, it TAKES from people. It provides some services yes, but not from the heart. It doesn’t have one.

    If government was the answer, inter-city and rural poverty would have been gone long ago.

  6. Anonymous says

    I don’t trust that figure that conservatives give 30% more to charity. What percentage of their “charity” giving goes to churches and televangelists, who spend a lot of that money on fancy churches and fancy lifestyles for their charismatic leaders? If we counted only charity that went to actual people in need, I think the count for conservatives and non-conservatives would be closer (if not reversed).

    Also, as to relying on charitable organizations to provide all services to the down and out – charitable organizations don’t all provide services without discrimination. As a gay person, I wouldn’t feel safe asking for help from a gay-bashing church, and wouldn’t get much help from many of them. And I’d not be interested in help that required a “co-pay” of listening to a sermon.

  7. Anonymous says

    Regarding who gives what – show me the source of your data, not just your thoughts.

    Charitable organizations are one step better than government, they’re optional. But the best giving by far is by individuals…to individuals.

  8. “a gay-bashing church”

    In your mind or can you substantiate said “bashing”?

    Aaron, how’s that HOPE and CHANGE working out for you and those crowds of homeless children?

  9. Depends, K-Rod, how is that “cruising blogs and throwing talk radio nonsense at them” working for you?

    I’m moderating comments now, K-Rod, so I’m not going to approve any that don’t bring something substantial to the conversation. We don’t have to agree but I also don’t have time to fight with you over rhetorical points from a two-year-old campaign every day when Rush signs off.

    Enjoy the day.

  10. Talk radio nonsense?
    Yet you are unable to substantiate this. Pfffttt how typical.

    I think Rush is a good band, they’re Canadians, I saw them in concert a few times but that was years ago.
    How you think they are pertinent to this discussion is beyond me.

    Moderating out opposing views is a Liberal Fascist tactic.

    I still am interested in if there is any substance behind Anonymous’s charge of a specific “gay-bashing church”.

    Thanks Aaron.

  11. I do not moderate blogs because you are conservative and I am liberal. I moderate comments because you are insufferable. Believe it or not I know there is a difference.

  12. Anonymous says

    great article! thanks for writing it!

  13. Aaron, I still am interested in if there is any substance behind Anonymous’s charge of a specific “gay-bashing church”.

    Similar to when you are asked to substantiate your accusation toward me, all we hear are *crickets*.

    Talk radio nonsense?
    Yet you are unable to substantiate this. Pfffttt how typical.

    Yes, you definitely fall under Berg’s Seventh Law of Liberal Projection

  14. I don’t know what’s funnier, K-Rod, that you seem so upset that you don’t automatically get the last word on every post of mine that you disagree with, or that the “seventh law” from that post doesn’t seem to connect with what I said earlier. I don’t normally like to get personal with commenters on this blog, but your actions toward other commenters over the last two years really does bother me and was almost entirely the reason I switched to comment moderation. You may not perceive your style as confrontational but it really, really is. I suspect the reason you’re not over on larger blogs like MN Publius or MN Progressive Project is because they won’t allow it either.

    I am far from the most liberal blogger in this state. I’m pro-mining, pro-small business and much more understanding of conservative budgeting than your average DFL voice. We don’t agree on a lot of things. Can that just be OK? Can we just let that be?

  15. “like MN Publius or MN Progressive Project”

    Ahhh, yes, your puppet masters. ;^)
    You do know that quite a few of those moon-bat Liberal Fascists are indeed Truthers like Grace Kelly. Water seeks it’s own level, eh.

    Aaron, I do give you credit for placing Iron Range jobs and development above the left wing partisanship that has so gripped our country and state.
    Your message could only improve if you moved to the center. How many more decades will the left wingers and their policies hamstring da Range?

    Ask not what government can do for you; ask what you can do for da Range.

    Have a nice day, Aaron; will you be up at the waterskips this Saturday?

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