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A Dirty Little Secret

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90.3 WBHM | Sylvania, Ala. -- Becky Ball singing: "They don't know what keeps me going, I guess they never have met you."

You wouldn't expect that big voice to come out of little Becky Ball. But you can see the words resonate with the 17-year-old. Becky sings almost any chance she gets; she hopes her voice may one day help bring her family some much needed money.

Becky Ball singing: "All my life was in shambles, till the day you came along."

It wasn't so long ago the Balls life was in shambles. They were living in a ramshackle trailer without running water or electricity. In the winter they had extension cords running from a relative's house to heaters in the trailer.

"You know, we had looked everywhere, checkin' on a house, tryin' to find one here or there, checkin' on a couple of them. Checked into FHA, checked into that but they wanted a big down payment."

Reverend Dorsey WalkerThen, Ricky Ball says they found Reverend Dorsey Walker. As director of the Upper Sand Mountain Parish, Walker's been working with Alabama's rural homeless and those at risk of homelessness for decades. He says there's a shortage of decent, affordable housing in rural Alabama. Right now, he has 60 or 70 applications sitting on his desk from people like the Balls, who, without the parish's help, may have nowhere to live. The parish runs the Heart to Hands building project -- they build small, energy efficient homes and then sell them to low-income families on a rent-to-own basis.

"Over the last 20-something years we have built 40 some houses. We started with families that were, well, we hoped the poorish to the poor, that couldn't pay anything, or very little, but they could pay enough to eventually own a home."

In the beginning, the parish was only charging 35 dollars a month in rent, but Walker says they realized that even those modest payments were too much for some families to handle. It's getting to be too much for the Balls -- who live in a modest 3-bedroom home the church built in Sylvania.

Ricky suffers from a disabling eye problem and has been unable to hold down a steady job. He's supported his family with his monthly disability check, now that check's been taken away.

"I've been disabled most all my life, since I was 17, and lately the people who decide that sort of thing decided I'm not disabled anymore, so I'm looking for a job that I am able to do. Other than that, we make a little music here and there and pick up money that way."

Becky Ball singing: "And I'm still holding on, Lord I'll never let you go."

"I sorta have, it's nothin' elaborate or anything like that, but it's my own recording studio set up in the living room. We can do all of our own music, therefore we can be our own band so to speak and come up with some CD's and stuff."

The Balls get some help from Reverend Walker, who has them sing at parish functions and who plans to help them market their CD. Walker says their story isn't all that unusual in this part of the country, poverty and homelessness go hand-in-hand, but it's a problem most people don't see.

"Rural homelessness is more difficult to recognize because many families will move in with their friends or family members. There's still a very close connection in many rural areas or you have family who moves away to an urban center and has problems and come back home and will move in with their family until they can get back on their feet."

"Clearly someone that is doubled up and staying with someone is homeless because at any point and time they can be asked to leave and if they do not have a place to go then they are homeless."

Old Firehouse ShelterAnd Steve Freeman should know. As director the Old Firehouse Shelter in Birmingham, he stares urban homelessness in the face everyday. The shelter is coming off one of its busiest times of the year. It only houses 50 men, but during winter months Freeman says they've packed in as many as 75 or 80. The problem gets even worse when they have to make room for rural homeless brought in from outlying areas.

"Our shelters are overcrowded and any addition is reason to, cause for concern."

Freeman calls rural homelessness Alabama's "dirty little secret" because its one most officials don't want to admit exists. And why would they when the population is virtually invisible?

It's hard tracking rural homeless, but the non-profit Rosehaven Center tries. last year, 761 rural homeless walked through the doors of its emergency shelters. Thosen who found the center were lucky, there's a shortage of shelters in rural areas. Freeman says if the state and federal government would spend more on prevention, they wouldn't need to worry about shelters or overcrowding at all.

"We need to put more time and resources into preventing homelessness. I don't want to come to the Old Firehouse Shelter in the first place and everything we can do to keep them from coming to us, we're far better off as a community."

Dorsey Walker says the irony in Appalachia is that the one thing that makes it such a strong community, its emphasis on family values, also perpetuates the rural homeless problem.

"In many parts of rural Appalachia, at least, parents perceive that if their kids get a good education then they're apt to get jobs out of the region and move away."

That strong strong bond is evident in the Ball family, as soon as Becky starts to sing, her father's face lights up.

Becky Ball singing: "You touched my heart and you touched my soul..."

And while they hope their music can help make ends meet, Ricky says he won't be comfortable until he finds a stable income again and can continue making payments on his house in Appalachia.

Becky Ball singing: "And I'm still holdin' on, to the best thing I ever found."

Rosemary Pennington, March 08, 2004