For more than two years, she lived in a pole barn, a metal shell on a hilltop with no heat and no electricity. The floor was crushed limestone.

On her worst winter night, the temperature dropped well below zero, and she wrapped herself in several layers of wool starting in the afternoon to maintain her body heat all night in the drafty barn.

"I wished I could've called somebody I knew because I thought I would possibly die," she said, recalling how she labored to breathe the icy air that seemingly endless night three years ago. 

The 55-year-old woman talked about her homelessness on condition her name not be used because she still has "trust issues" and because of the stigma associated with being homeless, particularly in small towns. She lost her job and home before living in a tent and eventually seeking refuge in the barn on her family's property in northwestern Green County. She now lives with a domestic partner and says she is doing well.

But she spent nearly four years without a home, a casualty of a rural homeless epidemic whose victims are rarely seen or heard. Many rural schools in Wisconsin are counting record numbers of homeless students. The few rural shelters that exist are almost always full and strained by dwindling public money. 

By last October in Green County, the number of homeless or near-homeless families that contacted county agencies for help had surpassed 2010's figures, said Jeannie Blumer, who works with the homeless for the county's Department of Human Services.

"This is the worst I've ever seen it," said Blumer, a social worker for more than 30 years. "I think most folks equate homeless with larger communities and don't realize we have the same issues here."

According to the state Division of Housing, 17,007 people spent the night in an emergency shelter in Wisconsin in 2010, the most recent year for which numbers were available. Three largely rural counties — Forest, Marathon and Oneida — had the largest growth of homeless families, while another rural county, Columbia, had the largest growth in chronic homelessness.

Unlike their urban brethren who are often seen sleeping in parks or other public spaces when shelters are full, rural homeless people live out of plain sight, often doubling or tripling up with others in small apartments or homes. Many hide living arrangements from others as they live out of cars or motels. Others stay outdoors no matter how cold or hot it gets.

Nationally, the number of homeless using suburban and rural programs rose 57 percent from 2007 to 2010, while the number in cities decreased 17 percent during that same time period, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Stimulus money runs out

Agencies and shelters in rural areas are finding it harder to help the growing number of homeless. Making matters worse, federal stimulus money that arrived for many agencies in 2009 and helped limit the number of new rural homeless for more than a year has been spent.

The stimulus law set aside $1.5 billion nationally for the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, which officials say helped more than 1 million people. Wisconsin got nearly $17 million that was earmarked for mostly rural areas. 

Starting in late 2009, the Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program (SWCAP) — which serves Richland, Grant, Iowa, Lafayette and Green counties — got $1.1 million in stimulus money, and $200,000 more in 2010.

Jean Sewell, who works with the homeless for the agency, credited the money with slowing the problem in the area. Her agency counted 497 people as homeless or near homeless in 2011, down from 1,068 people in 2010, she said. 

The stimulus money bought rooms in motels, security deposits and a month's rent for apartments and other needs to get homeless people back on track. 

"We were able to work a lot of miracles with those funds," Sewell said.

But it was all gone by last September. Now Sewell's agency is trying to stretch $50,000 it received last year from another federal homeless program, but she anticipates that will be gone within a few weeks. 

You have free articles remaining.

Become a Member

Register for more free articles
Stay logged in to skip the surveys

"So we will have nothing until July when it will become available again," she said. 

Because of the empty coffers and full shelters, Sewell cited an example of someone she can't help: a homeless woman five months pregnant who is doubling up in a crowded, rat-infested house in Grant County. "(SWCAP officials) really want us to get her out of there, and we have nowhere to put her," Sewell said

Private agencies, charities help

Homelessness prevention efforts also face declining funding from county governments, so help is starting to show up through private agencies and charities.

One example is Family Promise, a program launched in Green County this year by Monroe Clinic psychologist Bob Beck. The new church-run program was spurred in part by a cut in Green County's funding for homeless services, which dropped from $310,000 in 2011 to $140,000 this year, Blumer said. 

So far, two families have been helped by Family Promise, an arm of the Interfaith Hospitality Networks that serves urban and rural areas in 41 states. In the program, 13 Green County churches will open their doors for homeless families to live in for a week at a time while 13 others provide services such as cooking meals, grocery shopping and driving children to school or events. 

Some 700 people have volunteered.

Families are fed breakfast and dinner each day. In the morning, while the children are at school, the adults spend the day at the Family Promise office looking for work and doing other tasks they need to become independent again.

The first family of six is just winding through the program, which takes around 70 days to complete. Laci Ramsden, 29, quickly found work at an Alzheimer's facility in Monroe as a certified nursing assistant while her husband, Cary Grant, 43, is closing in on finding a job.

They became homeless after Grant lost his job and they were evicted from their apartment. Before joining the program, all six were living in one small motel room in New Glarus that was funded by Blumer's agency. 

"It was very scary," Grant said. "I suffer from anxiety, too, and depression, and that was the worst week of my life, not knowing what was going to happen and where we were going to go."

Thankful for Safe Harbor

The story — good Samaritans raising money to fight homelessness — plays out across the rural area. 

In Juneau County, six volunteers known as Lend A Hand raised $15,643 in 2010 to pay for temporary housing. It paid for one week in a motel for 150 people in 2011.

Near Mazomanie, Dave Hill has owned the Bel-Aire motel for most of 20 years and has opened his doors to the homeless for all of that time. Some of them do odd jobs to cover their lodging.

In Reedsburg, the Safe Harbor shelter, which is almost always full, relies on private donations from churches, organizations and individuals for the $52,000 or so it needs every year. Homeless women and their children can stay at the shelter for 30 days unless special circumstances allow for a longer stay.

One 60-year-old woman staying at Safe Harbor believes the shelter saved her life. She is battling breast cancer, undergoing chemotherapy, radiation treatments and four surgeries and requested anonymity because she feared her story might scare off potential employers. During her ordeal, she became homeless after her domestic partner left her. She told her boss she needed to take sick leave, but her employer didn't hold her job for her.

She couldn't stop thanking the women who run Safe Harbor. Without it, she said, "I probably would've ended up dying because I had nowhere else to go."

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

Subscribe to our Politics email!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.