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Fourth Annual Eccles Family Rural West Conference

People and Place in the Rural American West

Missoula, Montana, March 17-19

Panel 3: Home(less) on the Range

« Keynote: Gov. Steve Bullock

Panel 4: Tribal Law and Policy »


This panel explored problems with affordable housing in rural areas, particularly for low-income and poor families. Panelists presented research from a variety of rural settings that explored overlapping issues including homelessness and rural outmigration due to poverty, rural gentrification and housing insecurity, and housing shortages due to boomtown development. The panelists explored the interconnections between economic development (and/or lack thereof) and lack of affordable housing in rural communities.

Held March 18, 2016 at the University of Montana in Missoula, MT


Speakers Click to cue video

Panel Recap

Homelessness is a problem often associated with large cities and urban areas. The third panel of the Rural West Conference broke from this stereotype and examined the issue from a distinctly rural standpoint.

Jennifer Sherman (video) illustrated the tough realities of homelessness – why it happens and what the consequences are – by relaying stories of the people and families involved in her research. Sherman is an associate professor of psychology at Washington State University, and her research is based in an unnamed area of rural Washington where an influx of wealthy homeowners has made it a site of rapid gentrification. As the cost of living increases in what she calls “Paradise Valley,” Sherman sees housing options for local residents diminish. Moreover, since many locals rely on a seasonally fluctuating tourist industry, their income can fluctuate widely. In recent years, Sherman related, a wildfire destroyed an affordable housing complex that has still not been rebuilt, even as wealthier newcomers continue to build homes. By sharing the narratives of people living in this particular community, Sherman highlighted how changing demographics, drug abuse problems, and the challenge of making a life in one’s changing home town can lead people to struggle with homelessness.

Michele Statz (video), a visiting assistant professor of sociology and history at Carthage College, is based in Chicago, but her work focuses on migrant workers across the United States, and particularly in the West. Through telephone surveys, she is revealing many of the harsh realities migrant farmworkers face daily. Statz pointed to the example of Napa Valley in California. Although the grape growers and wine producers that make the region famous are dependent on migrant labor, the median wage for migrants is insufficient for them to meet high housing and living costs. As a result, migrants are priced out of the areas where they work, and forced to travel long distances and reside in low quality housing. Farmworkers are burdened with many other difficulties as they work to harvest food, Statz emphasized, including the struggle to communicate and the threat of immigration raids and and predatory housing practices.

Rayna Sage (video), an assistant professor at Washington State University, pointed out the ties between inadequate housing and food insecurity, she described her work at a local food bank. An outreach project she helped start is aimed encouraging clients of a food bank to grow some of their own food in small plants or plots at home. Sage emphasized that the work she was doing wasn’t “world changing,” but it was having a positive and direct impact for many women by giving them some agency and more understanding about the food they were serving to their families.

Daisy Rooks (video) presented research that touched very close to home for the Missoula residents in attendance. Rooks is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Montana who uses quantitative research to examine pathways to homelessness. Her most recent project involves talking to homeless persons in Missoula. Although Missoula is technically an urban area, all the interviewees in her project had either been born in a rural area or previously been homeless in rural areas. She and her team conducted 84 interviews with the goal of better understanding the circumstances of those who either find themselves without a home or who choose to be homeless. Rooks found that many of the people that she spoke to in the Missoula area took great pride in their ability to survive in harsh Montana winter conditions,  and in their skills at plant identification, hunting, and trapping. On the outskirts of the city, she said, “there are many trails that lead to illegal, off-the-grid homeless encampments.” She also noted the importance of examining the narratives of individuals in her research. Some stories may include fantastical elements, she pointed out, but they all include important insights into how the subject is shaping their own identity.

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« Keynote: Gov. Steve Bullock

Panel 4: Tribal Law and Policy »





Rural West Conference Volume

Bridging the Distance

Common Issues of the Rural West

Edited by David B. Danbom
Foreword by David M. Kennedy

Published in cooperation with the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University
The University of Utah Press has published Bridging the Distance, a book by the Rural West Initiative of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. Edited by the distinguished historian David B. Danbom and with a foreword by Center co-founding director David M. Kennedy, the book explores the Rural West across four dimensions: Community, Land, Economics – and defining the Rural West itself. The book is the result of work presented at the first Conference on the Rural West, which took place in Ogden, Utah, in October 2012.