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Homelessness: The Rural Perspective
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The picture of homelessness in rural and frontier America is very different than that in urban and metropolitan areas. It is harder to identify people who are homeless, and to provide access to services. Lee Flamik of Rush County, KS has been advocating for people who are homeless with mental illness in rural and frontier communities for more than a decade. HRC’s Jenny Stratton chatted with Lee recently.
image of Lee Flamick

Lee Flamik serves on the Kansas Governor’s Mental Health Services Planning Council Rural and Frontier Subcommittee. He currently lives in Rush County, Kansas with a population of 3,551 people spanning 718 miles. Lee Flamik emailed the Homelessness Resource Center (HRC) in September 2008 asking for more resources. After talking to Lee, we quickly learned he has much to say about rural and frontier homelessness! Lee will be leading a discussion on the topic at our next HRC Regional Training in Kansas City, MO on May 21-22, 2009.

Q: When did you become interested in rural and frontier homelessness in Kansas?

A: I’ve lived in Rush County, Kansas all my life.  I live on the same farm that my grandparents bought in the depression.  I am an advocate for people with mental illness, who are disproportionately homeless.  In 1994, I started to advocate for the inclusion of people with mental illness who are from frontier and rural counties – numerically and as human beings. I believe, “If you don’t know us, how can you help us?”
Q: What is the difference between rural and frontier counties?

A: According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, densely settled rural counties are populated by 20-39 persons per square mile, and generally rural counties are populated by 6-19 persons per square mile.  Frontier counties have 6 people or less per square mile. To give you a better picture, one-third of Kansas is frontier, and about another third is considered rural.  There are only five densely settled rural counties in Western Kansas, and zero semi-urban or urban counties.

Q: What does frontier homelessness look like?

A: There aren’t abandoned buildings to stay in, without neighbors knowing about it.  You can’t sleep in a park or under a bridge, like you can in urban areas.  According to research I have read, most people experiencing frontier homelessness stay with family or friends.  It is difficult to access resources, and Rush County is one example of this.  Depending on which county you live in, there could be several other frontier or rural counties nearby. This may mean that you have to travel hundreds of miles to access services.

Q: In your opinion, what is the most important issue related to rural and frontier homelessness?

A: Human and statistical inclusion at a state and national level that is meaningful for those who reside in and provide services in frontier and rural counties.  In order to fully understand how to end homelessness in a frontier county, we need systematic research that looks at the cultural context, availability and accessibility to resources. This research will help to illustrate the reality of rural homelessness, rather than impose models that have only been proven to work in other types of counties.  

Q: What do you like about living in a frontier county?

A: Not having a close neighbor.  I enjoy the wildlife.  I can see the stars.  My dogs don’t need fences.  My cat won’t get run over.  It is beautiful.

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