Rural America has homeless people too. But they’re hard to find.

Dewayne Meredith, who lives with his dog Spones in his truck on a city street in Carlisle, Pa., has been homeless for about one year. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
10 min

CARLISLE, Pa. — As freezing rain came and went, Beth Kempf drove across a segment of the vast expanse of Cumberland County and trudged through convenience store parking lots, tiny alleys between rowhouses, and fields behind closed businesses, asking those she met variations of the same question: Are you homeless?

Jan. 25 was a bitter night for people enduring homelessness, and not a good night to get an accurate count of them. Some probably sought better shelter until the storm passed. But Kempf ventured out to count them anyway.

Kempf, the executive director of the homeless services nonprofit Community Cares, was among about two dozen advocates and volunteers seeking out the unhoused in Cumberland County as part of the annual “point-in-time” count — a nationwide census of homeless people conducted each January that helps advocates track demographic data, which the federal government can use to decide where funds meant to combat homelessness should be spent.

Some advocates criticize the point-in-time count, saying it underrepresents the true number of homeless people. Those staying with relatives or doubled up in motel rooms on one freezing January night won’t be counted — even if they’re unhoused the other 364 days of the year.

Compared with her counterparts in urban areas, Kempf’s task was formidable. In D.C., for example, advocates must search a jurisdiction of about 68 square miles to find thousands of homeless people. Even after many of the city’s tent encampments were dismantled in recent years, homelessness is visible.

Seeking a census count for the unhoused in D.C.

Cumberland County, a 555-square-mile region about 120 miles west of Philadelphia, presents a different challenge. Here, a much smaller number of homeless people — fewer than 100 in 2022 — are dotted across a great swath of land in locations unlike urban underpasses and encampments. Small towns. Woodlands. State parks. Farms. Truck stops. Abandoned motels.

Some unhoused people were easy to spot. Dewayne Meredith, 46, was living in his Nissan Xterra right outside the Community Cares headquarters with his dog, Spones. Meredith said he’d come from Arkansas to Pennsylvania, attracted by hiking on the Keystone State’s portion of the Appalachian Trail.

Meredith dutifully answered questions posed by one of Kempf’s colleagues. He is White. He is male. He takes a drink occasionally but doesn’t do drugs. He has no mental health diagnoses.

His dream home is a camper. He said Spones didn’t mind the cold — a frigid January night in Pennsylvania is like summer to a husky — and Meredith himself didn’t mind living in a vehicle.

“I’m not a real settled person,” he said.

Meredith is just one of many unsettled Americans. Federal authorities say about 582,000 people were homeless during last year’s point-in-time count as homelessness approaches crisis levels in some places.

Biden aims to cut homelessness 25% by 2025

After Los Angeles declared a state of emergency over homelessness and New York City announced plans to institutionalize mentally ill unhoused people, President Biden in December announced a plan to reduce the number of homeless people by 25 percent in the next two years.

Over the span of a few hours in late January in Pennsylvania, Kempf was trying to find a relatively small number of them in a very large space. If unhoused people aren’t counted, they won’t count.

“We’re kind of like an iceberg,” she said. “You might see a few, and there’s more hiding than you know.”

Advocates knocked on car doors and visited rest areas to count the number of homeless people for the national point-in-time count in Carlisle, Pa., on Jan. 25. (Video: Justin Wm. Moyer, Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)

A hidden problem

Biden’s December plan said homeless people living outside cities are “historically undercounted.” On Thursday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced $315 million in grants to address homelessness among people in unsheltered and rural settings in 46 communities.

“For the first time the federal government is deploying targeted resources to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness in unsheltered settings or in rural areas,” HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge said in a statement.

To find those who needed help on Jan. 25, Cumberland County mounted a military-style operation. In a computer center down the block from Community Cares, Chris Kapp, a regional homeless systems manager who works with the Cumberland County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities, sat at a table surrounded by about two dozen paid care providers and volunteers.

These folks had come to count people — a seemingly simple task that wasn’t that simple.

Kapp, unable to stand because of a multiple sclerosis flare-up, explained that the point-in-time count was not just a census, but also a search.

“You’re not going to see people with a neon light that says, ‘I’m homeless,’” Kapp said.

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Kapp laid out ground rules. The counters were to search at the edges of buildings and parking lots where people might pitch tents or camp out in vehicles. At the periphery of businesses, unhoused people would have access to bathrooms and WiFi without having to sleep under the harsh glare of parking lot lights.

Kapp described the telltale signs of lived-in vehicles. Fogged windows. Sun screens or towels blocking windshields. A motley collection of belongings strewn on a dashboard. A plastic bag hung from a car mirror to collect trash.

But counters would also have to approach people who, well, looked homeless. This could mean a person wearing a poncho pushing a cart overflowing with belongings. It could also mean a person hanging around in a truck-stop lounge for much longer than an average trucker might.

Once a possibly homeless person was identified, things got more complicated.

Some people didn’t want to be found. Those who refused to talk or wouldn’t acknowledge that they were homeless became “observational” counts — counters would record why they suspected a person was unhoused along with the person’s location and estimated age, then move on.

This meant some unhoused people’s needs wouldn’t be fully documented.

“Anything less than an enthusiastic ‘yes’ is a ‘no,’” Kapp said.

Those who did consent to an interview would be peppered with, depending on their patience, dozens of questions drawn from a four-page form, some about very personal matters. Race. Age. Ethnicity. Gender. Shelter stays. Length of homelessness. Drug use. Mental health. Disabilities. HIV status. Domestic violence.

This last subject was particularly fraught. Counters could ask individuals who were found alone whether they felt unsafe. But when interviewing two or more people together, this question was forbidden. If an unhoused person is interviewed in the presence of their abuser, Kapp explained, the exchange could trigger domestic violence.

And the counters themselves were also vulnerable. They were reaching out to those who had been exiled or exiled themselves to society’s fringes. The vast majority were harmless.

Some weren’t.

“It is not especially dangerous doing this work,” Kapp said. The volunteers listened to this part of the briefing in silence.

Few, however, seemed daunted. Kenya Martinez, a junior at nearby Dickinson College, had recently returned from a college trip to Dallas focused on health and homelessness. After volunteering at public service organizations there, she decided to continue this work in her own backyard.

“People tend to dehumanize the homeless,” Martinez said. “It’s important to remember that they are a part of our own community.”

In a statement, HUD said the point-in-time count does not reflect every single person experiencing homelessness on the night of the count. “We believe it is a relatively close estimate and is sufficient to help us understand how many people are experiencing homelessness and what their characteristics are,” the agency said.

“It is a flawed way of doing things,” Kapp — who participated in the count later the evening — told the group. “We do the best we can. ... We may have to stay in the tunnel, but we’re going to light it up. We’re going to find as many people as we can.”

Those lost — and those counted

Plenty of people who may have been homeless in Cumberland County on Jan. 25 definitely did not want to talk to Kempf.

She approached a woman parked in a Kia a few blocks from Community Cares, offering her a “goody bag” filled with toiletries and other supplies. Kempf tried to sell the woman on participating in the point-in-time count — or just coming over to Community Cares for help.

“You can shower over there,” Kempf told the woman. “You don’t have to stay out here. Come see me.” The woman declined.

Behind the wheel of a minivan, Kempf cruised Carlisle’s “Miracle Mile” — a collection of rest stops, motels and chain restaurants near exit ramps from Interstate 81. In the parking lot of a Denny’s, she got out of the minivan to talk to a man sitting in Mazda 3 with, according to Kempf, a “whole system” to obscure the views of passersby, including towels to block the car’s fogged side windows.

After a short conversation with him, Kempf returned to the minivan.

“He’s in denial that he’s homeless,” Kempf said. “We’ll circle back with him tomorrow.”

People who need help sometimes refuse it, Kempf had learned. There was a time when she herself had been without a place to stay; she too had tried to hide.

“I wouldn’t tell anybody,” she said. “I’m a giver. I’m not a good receiver.”

She stopped in a backyard in downtown Carlisle to visit Alahad Armiya, known to care providers as “Armi.” With the homeowner’s permission, he had constructed an elaborate tentlike structure in the concrete backyard of a small rowhouse beneath a basketball hoop. Electric cords ran from inside the home to the tent, which, although it had flooded recently, was equipped with an air mattress and a heater.

Armi answered Kempf’s questions for the point-in-time count but refused a spot at a nearby severe-weather shelter.

“I have my freedom,” he said. “I don’t feel trapped around other people. Sometimes, it’s better to get away from people. That’s how life goes.”

Ellen Bitner, 65, was also counted. She said she came to Community Cares after law enforcement raided her home earlier in the month. Someone had been selling drugs out of the home without her knowledge, she said, leaving it uninhabitable. Bitner would bed down in a shelter at a nearby church until she could get her house repaired, sell it and find a place in the country.

Bitner came to Pennsylvania from Missouri years ago but doesn’t want to go back. Though she’s estranged from her daughter, her daughter lives in the area. So Bitner would stay there too.

“I’ve never been in a shelter,” Bitner said. “I’ve never been down and out like this.”

Driving the Miracle Mile, Kempf said homelessness has one cause: poverty. Rich people with addiction issues aren’t homeless, she said. Nor are rich people with criminal records, bad credit or any of the many difficulties associated with homelessness.

Advocates counted about 80 homeless people, including about 10 children, in Cumberland County that night — about 10 percent higher than the number last year — and everyone in the tally had the same problem.

“Poverty is poverty,” Kempf said.

Story editing by Alisa Tang. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Video editing by Jayne Orenstein. Copy editing by Vanessa Larson. Design by J.C. Reed.