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Commentary: Homelessness in Rural Communities

Camryn Lynn

At the beginning of this semester, the Western Illinois University Marketing Club was contacted by Samaritan Well, the homeless shelter in Macomb, and they asked if we would be interested in helping them put together a fundraiser to raise money and, more importantly, awareness for their organization. I gladly agreed and took up leadership in the project. We decided to make the event a sleep-out, as there is a national sleep-out movement to raise awareness for homelessness during the month of November. The concept of a sleep-out is to spend a night away from home – ideally, sleeping outdoors – to raise awareness for the struggles of those who do not have a home to go to.

The fundraiser was hosted at the Campus Students for Christ house. Some of the events included hay rack rides, a bags tournament, and a scavenger hunt, in addition to lots of food and other games. The main event was the three guest speakers; Danielle Barnes, who is the director of Samaritan Well, George Allison, one of Samaritan Well’s former residents, and Mayor Mike Inman.

Events like these are especially important in rural areas like Macomb, as Ms. Barnes pointed out in her speech, because rural homelessness is far less obvious than city homelessness. It is easy to identify a homeless person in a city, because they are often sleeping outside and openly asking for money to help them get by. Many people in rural areas think that homelessness is not an issue in their town because they never see people living on the streets.

However, that is not true.

Rural homelessness usually means couch surfing, crashing at a different friend or family members’ house every week. The homeless people in small towns don’t tend to beg for money. It is highly stigmatized to be homeless in a small town, and many times the homeless will not admit that they are struggling for fear of shame and embarrassment.

This is why organizations like Samaritan Well are important. They not only provide shelter to those who are suffering in silence, they help them get back on their feet and learn new skills that will make them successful once they leave the shelter. They provide educational support so their residents can finish high school or obtain a GED, and they teach social skills, budgeting and savings plans, nutritional meal planning, goal setting and spiritual growth.

George Allison, the former resident of Samaritan Well who spoke, now manages Samaritan Well’s Men’s shelter. He explained that homelessness can happen to anyone, and even the most well-off people can lose everything. He had owned a successful business until the stock market crash of 2008, when he lost his business, his home, and all his possessions. He emphasized that the residents in the shelter are no different than anyone else, and that really we’re all just one disaster away from being homeless.

When you think like that, it’s easy to understand why the community must rally around Samaritan Well and ensure that they can continue to do what they’re doing.

Mayor Inman thanked Samaritan Well for everything they do in the community. He reminded us of how incredible it is to see Western and Macomb united over a common goal, like we were in hosting this event. Over half of the participants were Western students, and everyone seemed delighted to have so much support from the young people in the community.

The event was extremely successful. We had a total of 40 people attend the fundraiser and 10 spend the night. We raised $1000 for Samaritan Well, which far exceeded our expectations. It was amazing to see the students at the event, some of whom were paying participants and some volunteers, interacting with the Mayor, the Samaritan Well staff and residents, and members of the community.

I would like to give special thanks to the businesses who donated to make the event possible, which are: the Campus Students for Christ, Hickory Grove Farm, Michael’s Hair Designers, Prairie Smoke Herb, Campus Town Gear and Graphics, Starbucks, Hyvee, Goodwill, and Domino’s, in addition to some of WIU’s organizations, which are: the Social Work Student Association, Delta Sigma Pi, Phi Alpha, Chi Omega, and Sigma Sigma Sigma.

Hopefully hearing about this event can inspire others as much as it inspired me, and if anyone would like to donate to Samaritan Well, they may do so by contacting Danielle Barnes at (309) 837-3357.

Camryn Lynn is a freshman at Western Illinois University. She is Vice President of WIU’s Marketing Club.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of WIU or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse views are welcomed and encouraged.