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Another Voice: Rural poverty remains a largely invisible problem

By Frank Cerny

Larry Bierl tragically froze to death in Amherst recently. It could just have easily happened in rural Western New York.
Coverage of Larry’s death, and the related issue of how those experiencing homelessness were dealing with the extreme cold, included repeated media announcements of Code Blue sites, focused solely on urban conditions and opportunities.
This is because rural poverty is called the “invisible poverty” and recent news coverage proves the point.

As executive director of the Rural Outreach Center, I am making a public plea that we need to make the plight of the “invisible poor” visible, and then to make the well-being of this important part of our community mosaic matter.

The Rural Outreach Center (ROC), located south of East Aurora, serves much of the rural population in southern Western New York. It, too, is a Code Blue site, providing overnight warming and sleeping accommodations to homeless persons from Yorkshire, Springville, Hamburg, West Seneca and parts in between.

The majority of poverty in Erie County is outside the urban core. Within the ZIP codes we serve, there are more than 40,000 people living below the poverty line and yet resources to help these people overcome their plight are simply not available.

In our service area, more than 8,500 families are without a personal vehicle. This and the absence of public transportation options, in a population dispersed over a wide geographic area, virtually guarantees that when help is needed, and deserved, it is not accessible.

The ROC uses an innovative empowerment model to help those in need identify their goals and what they need to do to reach those goals. We measure 14 potential outcomes, including cash reserves, adequacy of housing, emotional stability, etc., to track movement toward self-sufficiency. Based on these metrics, we know that our programs move people away from public assistance toward productive lives.

In spite of our daily assistance to several hundred families in rural Western New York, and our yearly assistance to more than 2,000 individuals, public agencies are unable to find a way to support this work. We have been told that we “don’t fit the model.” This, in spite of the fact that urban-oriented agencies, using similar wrap-around, preventive models, are able to access public funds.

If you are unaware of rural poverty, or do not understand the differences between rural and urban poverty, please call us at 716-240-2220 to set up a tour of our facility. If you are aware of rural poverty, please email your government officials and urge them to finance the programs and agencies that serve this population.

Frank Cerny is executive director of Rural Outreach Center, East Aurora.

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