BRUNSWICK, Maine – The old, run-down trailer in the backcountry near Norridgewock wasn't much to look at, but it was home.
That was before the landlord died, setting in motion events that left Michelle DeStoop, Bobby Landry and their six children without a place of their own.
After losing their home, they sold their car to a junkyard when they couldn't afford to have it repaired. Without a car, they couldn't get around. Low on money, they lost their meager possessions when they couldn't pay the bill for storage.
Homelessness often means life in soup lines and on city streets, but as a new study commissioned by the state shows, it isn't confined to cities. It also can be found across rural areas, so concealed that some people are surprised it exists at all, the study finds.
"It's the hidden homeless," said Melany Mondello of the Shalom House mental health housing organization, who headed the study and a resulting 32-page report called "Cost of Rural Homelessness."
The study, commissioned by the Maine State Housing Authority, is believed to be the first study in the nation to provide a look at the costs of rural homelessness in a state. It concludes that providing "permanent supportive housing" — subsidized housing in combination with mental health, employment and other support services — for homeless people is less costly than serving them while they're without a home.
Moreover, the report sheds light on a segment of society that is often overlooked.
Many of the rural homeless stay at shelters — just like their urban counterparts — but some counties don't even have shelters, forcing the homeless to live in encampments, abandoned buildings, barns or cars. Many move from place to place, sleeping on a friend's or relative's couch or floor until they move on to the next person willing to take them in for a while.
All told, 1,200 people sought help at Maine's rural shelters last year, but the number of rural homeless is thought to be much higher. Of those who were looked at for the study, 97 percent had mental illness, 18 percent were alcohol abusers and 16 percent were drug abusers. Eleven percent were veterans.
DeStoop, 30, and Landry, 44, lived a simple life in the two-bedroom trailer they rented along Route 139 in Norridgewock, a town of 3,300 in central Maine. She worked in a dining hall at Colby College in Waterville; Landry, who is disabled and can't read or write, tended to things at home.
They lived next door to her mother's trailer and adjacent to an old roller skating rink that had been converted to a flea market. A farm down the road sold fresh produce in the summer months.
But when the trailer owner died, his heirs evicted them, removed the trailers and sold the property. At first, DeStoop and her family shared a house with her mother in Waterville. But after her mother moved out, it wasn't long before they followed — not able to pay the rent, heat and electricity on their own.
They bounced between her mother's and her grandfather's small apartments. But relationships can become strained when so many people live in such cramped quarters, so the family moved to Brunswick — where they eventually sought refuge at the Tedford Housing family shelter and have lived for eight months now. Moving an hour away meant DeStoop had to quit her job at the college.
Besides losing their home, their car and their possessions, DeStoop and Landry had three of their six children — ages 10, 8 and 6 — taken by the state and put into a foster home, she said. The other kids — ages 4, 5 and 8 — live with them at the shelter.
Last winter, Landry had to leave the shelter and spend more than three months on the streets because of a state investigation into their children's welfare. When he couldn't hook up with friends, he slept behind trash bins and in a gazebo on the town common, with a blanket to keep him warm.
He hit bottom in April when — in despair over his situation — he slashed his arm repeatedly with a razor blade to take his own life.
He was hospitalized overnight, and by coincidence was cleared by state investigators the very next day, setting the stage for his move back to the shelter, said Landry, the slash marks clearly visible on his arm.
"It's depressing. Very depressing," Michelle said. She later added: "You just keep your head up and keep on trying."
For the "Cost of Rural Homelessness" study, researchers looked at 163 people in all parts of Maine except Portland, the state's largest city, who were homeless and now live in permanent supportive housing. The study examined the costs of mental health care, physical health care, shelters, hospitals, jails and ambulance services while they were homeless and compared them to those same costs after they had housing.
The study found that the additional cost of the housing was more than offset by lower costs for the other services, said Nancy Fritz, Director of Homeless Initiatives at the Housing Authority.
For instance, people with the housing saw a 99 percent reduction in shelter costs, a 57 percent reduction in mental health care costs, a 32 percent reduction in ambulance service costs and a 95 percent reduction in jail costs. Physical health care costs rose by 9 percent, perhaps because people had easier access to doctors when they had housing.
Without housing, the average six-month cost to support the homeless was $18,629, according to the study; with the housing, the cost was $17,281, for an average savings of $1,348 per person.
"Yet there's a myth out there that when a person is homeless, it's not really costing us money. In fact, homelessness costs all of us money," Fritz said.
Even in Maine, a largely rural state with a population of 1.3 million people, the number of rural homeless are far outnumbered by the number of homeless in cities.
Nationally, there are about 675,000 homeless people on any given night. Of that figure, an estimated 9 percent — or just over 60,000 people — live in rural areas, said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The Maine study will be presented at the Washington-based organization's annual conference this summer.
Rural homelessness presents challenges because there is less transitional housing, fewer employment programs, fewer social service agencies, fewer health care programs and the like than in cities, Roman said. At the same time, though, finding solutions for homeless people can be easier in rural areas, in part because the numbers aren't so overwhelming, she said.
"Take the extreme, say Los Angeles, that has a city's worth of homeless people, 60,000 or 70,000 homeless people. It's difficult to think what you might do about that," she said. "Whereas rural communities ... may have 10 or 12 homeless people."
Rhonda Fisher was once part of that hidden homeless.
Following a late-night fight fueled by drinking three years ago, Fisher's boyfriend booted her out of the home they shared in the small central Maine town of Fairfield. She ended up at the homeless shelter in Waterville, where she and four other women shared a bedroom.
Fisher, who is 42, had already been through hard times: She dropped out of school at 15. She's had six children, giving up three to adoption. She's been married four times. She takes medication for bipolar disorder and anxiety.
Still, she couldn't believe she was homeless — again.
Years ago, she and her husband found themselves homeless in Durham, N.C. Their money ran out not long after moving there from Maine in search of new surroundings and opportunities.
The Durham shelter had more than 100 people in it, she said, with 40 or more women packed into a single sleeping room. The shelter would lock the residents down at night. It was dirty. During the day, she had to walk the city streets until the shelter reopened. "It was almost like a jail," she said.
For two years now, Fisher has lived in a subsidized one-bedroom apartment in Waterville, and she works at a local fast-food restaurant.
Like Fisher, Michelle DeStoop is hopeful for the future. She's been told that she is near the top of the waiting list for subsidized housing and thinks she and her family could be in a home of their own this summer.
Any home is better than being homeless, she said.
Even a dilapidated trailer from the 1970s on a country road in the middle of nowhere.
"We were living there," she said. "We called it home."