You expect to see homeless people in cities like Knoxville, Nashville, Chattanooga and Memphis.
You probably don’t expect to find them in the small Rhea County town of Dayton (population 7313). But they’re there.
That can be a surprise even to the people who live in Rhea County. “When they see homeless people here, most are appalled,” says Laura Olmstead, Food and Housing Director for the Dayton-based agency We Care. “They say, ‘Where did they come from? The city?’”
But homelessness is not just an urban problem. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates 7 percent of the nation’s homeless live in rural communities, sleeping in cars, campers and often shoved into substandard homes with friends and relatives.
In Rhea County, there’s no official count of the homeless. But at We Care, they’ve been getting about a call a day from someone who doesn’t have a place to sleep. “Some with mental illness, some from abuse, one sleeping in a car,” Olmstead says, ticking off the calls she’s taken in just the last week alone. Another got the flu, missed work and lost his job and apartment in the space of two weeks. He showed up at We Care, living in his car, starving and still sick.
Olmstead says she could offer him blankets, food and clothing. But she couldn’t offer him a warm bed.
In December, We Care lost the lease on the facility it used to temporarily house the homeless. Instead of providing a bed, Olmstead says she now has to suggest a trip to a homeless shelter in Chattanooga or Knoxville. For many of the people who call her for help, that’s not a reasonable option.
We Care did receive a donated micro-house for transitional clients to stay in, but Olmstead says one micro-house isn’t going to meet the demand. So she’s asking the community for help. Monday evening, the agency is hosting the first in a series of open forums on homelessness in Rhea County. Olmstead says she wants the community to recognize there’s a problem and start looking for solutions.
“I want them to understand this problem won’t go away overnight and we’ll always have someone who ends up homeless in our midst,” she says, “but it’s up to us as a community to come together and help them get back on the right track.”
Olmstead says initial reaction to the forum has varied. Several have contacted We Care to express an interest in attending. Others have inquired about the existence of a problem. “Some have shockingly said, ‘Do we have homeless people in Rhea County?’”
Olmstead says the forum will serve as an introduction to the issue for a lot of people. And she believes that’s an important first step. “Let’s talk,” she says, “let’s define our problem and let’s fix it together.”