Inside the Knox County Public Library, director Emily Bunyan points to an overflowing laundry basket of belongings left behind by a patron weeks earlier.

Clothes hastily shoved into the basket are topped with bars of soap, a single roll of toilet paper, and a tattered pair of Converse sneakers.

“I don’t know what happened to her — what happened to the mother and child,” Bunyan said, the concern clearly heard in her voice.

The young woman and child found themselves inside KCPL last month after being evicted from a friend’s home they had sought refuge in — the woman unsure where else to turn.

She told Bunyan the man she and her daughter were living with had been recently hospitalized, and his family members told her it was time to move on.

“She said they gave her five minutes to get her things and get out, so she grabbed what she could,” Bunyan explained, pointing to the possessions on the table. “Where they are now, we don’t know.”

Outside the library’s doors an older woman sits beneath the shade of a large tree near the parking lot.

“She spends a lot of time just sitting out there, but she also comes in and uses the computers or reads,” the library’s director says. “But she also comes to us individually sometimes to ask for money, so we’re always wondering when we see her if she’ll ask again.”

While the causes of homelessness in both rural areas and cities are the same — poverty, mental illness, domestic violence, and lack of housing, among others — the picture of the unhoused population looks a little different.

Women and families, for instance, make up a larger percentage of the unhoused population than is typical of the homeless in urban areas.

More than a third (39%) of the rural homeless population is comprised of families with children, according to a 2020 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Too, the report showed, largely rural areas had the highest percentage of unaccompanied homeless youth.

And, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts, most homeless residents in small towns and counties are usually found where they were born and raised, most are employed, but many are underemployed, in terms of hours worked per week and wage.

Those who are homeless or poor in small towns and rural areas also face unique sets of challenges, such as a lack of access to public transportation, making it more difficult to get to agencies that provide housing vouchers, mental health counseling, medical care, or job opportunities.

They can also remain largely invisible, sleeping in tree-dense areas and county parks, tool sheds, and barns.

While most of the individuals experiencing homelessness in Knox County are often out of sight and, therefore, out of mind, the staff at KCPL say that’s not an option for them.

The library’s programming coordinator, Janet Kitchin, recalls the day she interviewed for the job at KCPL, remembering vividly one specific question Bunyan asked.

“Emily asked how I feel about working with people like those who are homeless — if I feel comfortable — because people need to be asked those questions — that compassion needs to be there in order to work here,” Kitchin said.

The pair shared a bittersweet smile over the memory — a smile that revealed both how important the interview question was, as well as the many challenges they have encountered in the years since.

Just days ago the librarians were working with others in the community to help a homeless individual and his faithful four-legged companion.

The man, who has an approved voucher for housing, has been waiting for a unit that accepts pets to become available, unwilling to leave his dog behind.

Kitchin and Bunyan recognize that some may judge the man for choosing to wait for a pet-friendly apartment, but they hope those outside the situation may pause to consider it from his perspective.

“He truly seems like a really good guy, and he wants to work. But this dog may be the only thing that has been keeping him alive on the streets,” Kitchin said. “The dog is something to live for — it provides companionship and maybe even protection.”
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