Mountains Of Substandard Housing Appalachia's Poverty And Unemployment Make Even Ragged Homes Unaffordable.

Posted: August 19, 1994

ROYALTON, Ky. — On a dirt road hugging Long Creek, a man with knotted red hair and a mouth of few teeth lives on $112 a month in food stamps and the money he can raise peeling bark off sumac trees and selling it for 65 cents a pound.

A thin man, wide as a needle, he lifts his shirt and shows a knot the size of a marble poking from his flat white belly. He has no medical insurance and can't afford a doctor. He says he just watches the lump get bigger. He turns and slogs through the brush toward his trailer, passing an outhouse and two junked pick-ups. The trailer is buckled and twisted from neglect, a beaten tin box held together by faith and doors that hang unevenly in their jams.

His name is Ed Gilpen.

On Sunday he preaches at the Church of the Eternal God.

The rest of the week he wonders if God sees the misery of all the people who live in squalor in the lost hollows and along the high ridges of these Appalachian mountains.

Urban slums and homelessness stare America in the face, but the wretched housing conditions in Appalachia seldom are seen by the outside world, a forgotten sister without a voice in the national debate.

There are homes without electricity or running water. Homes are nailed together with loosely fitted plank boards, and they lack insulation. There are outhouses spilling into the same streams from which people fetch their drinking water. Those who have no outhouses use buckets that they empty in the woods. Some are living in buses or chicken coops. One family in Floyd County shares its crumbling wooden home with rats and the vinegar smell of unwashed skin.

"The way we have defined homelessness tended to be an urban phenomenon, but it is just as prominent in the rural region, only it looks differently," said David Lollis, director of the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises, which over the last five years has helped about 18,000 families build, repair and finance homes.

"People are doubled up and tripled up in small trailers and homes," he said. "Add to that no sanitary facilities and the hardship becomes the kind that keeps you from doing anything. How can you face school or look for a job?"

In the 10 poorest counties of eastern Kentucky, at least 10 percent of homes have substandard plumbing or none at all. That figure is down from 37 percent from the early 1960s. But the number of homes lacking adequate plumbing still is three times the state average, according to a study done by the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky. More than 20 percent of the homes in the poorest counties have no telephone, compared with just 5 percent nationally. In one area of eastern Kentucky 20 percent of the households dispose of sewage in streams that are used for drinking water.

Years of poverty coupled with unemployment - which in many counties is as high as 50 percent - make even the most ragged of homes unaffordable. In

Kentucky's poorest counties, 26 percent of all housing units are mobile homes, compared with less than 1 percent statewide. In one county, 12 percent of homes do not have complete kitchens, a figure that is 10 times the national


Housing programs cannot keep pace with the need in Appalachia. The Christian Appalachian Project is one of the more successful programs, but its office in the coal fields can assist only 90 of the average 250 applicants each year.


The need will only grow, as 49 eastern Kentucky counties have an average poverty rate of 31 percent compared with 13 percent nationally. During the 1980s, eastern Kentucky's per capita income dropped to 60 percent of the national average as 25,000 miners lost their jobs to automation.

"I grew up poor. But I've never seen it like this," said Ken Slone, a CAP outreach worker who logs 2,000 miles a month visiting the poor. "There's young, alone mothers with children drawing only $285 a month. It slaps you right hard in the face. . . . When I first started this job, I went to a shack and sat on a girl's couch and looked up at the sky. Rain was coming in, and she had two little handfuls of coal burning and kids running around half- naked."

Many of the poor own little except the scratch of earth their shanties sit on. Their ancestors are buried beneath it. They refuse to leave, no matter how bad the condition of their house. Part of Octavia Newsome's tin roof blew off last winter. It is curled up like the lid of an opened can. Her kitchen is charred from a fire years ago, soot still clinging to a picture of The Last Supper.


The 64-year-old widow patches the holes in the roof with scrap wood and rags. When it rains hard, she is busy running buckets. Her home is darkened with plastic on the windows, and it smells of dirty mattresses, spoiled food and the stale earth that peeks up between her floorboards.

"I'm scared the roof will blow off. But I've lived here and I will die here," said Newsome, whose white hair is tied back from a strong and heavy face. "If I go somewhere else I might not be able to sleep or rest. This is my land. This is my land. It ain't the house, it's the home."


The road to Ed Gilpen's trailer is a dirt snake that winds past rows of dead corn stalks, abandoned shacks, a strip mine and squawking geese.

Ed's busy under the hood of his car. He holds up a freckled hand covered in grease. He smiles, his mouth a shadow, a few yellowed teeth holding onto decaying gums. His red beard droops over his green shirt, which flaps over baggy blue pants that rumple on his ripped boots.

His mother, Ruby, steps out of her camper. She has a Virginia Slims between her knuckles and a cough that sounds like a cement mixer. She has no teeth, and when she smiles her pointed jaw meets her nose. The wrinkles around her eyes stretch into pretty hair, which is held back with bobby pins, skirting her frail shoulders. Ruby's camper is 6 feet by 15 feet and has no heat, running water or stove. Her electricity comes from a cord that's tethered 50 feet away to Ed's trailer.


She's been living there on and off for years.

Ed comes over and stands by Ruby, his big boots next to her tiny plastic shoes. Then he heads up a rocky road. He clops to the ridge, bends and rubs dirt in his fingers. He stares down to the valley bottom where his trailer and Ruby's camper resemble dicarded hulls in the thicket.

"I rake and scrape every bit I can," he says. "I owe the grocery man $1,600. He's been good about it. I'm human like anybody else. I'd like to have a better place and live with more on the table. But I do look around and see people worse off than me."

Ed's days are threaded with isolation. He recently earned his GED, but found that in a region with few jobs even an education does little good. He rises in the morning and toils over his broken car, or he spends hours checking the gauges on the natural gas lines up on the ridge. He's not paid anything for it, but last Christmas the man from the gas company bought him some groceries.

Many days - like one recently - he walks down from the ridge and into the woods, thinking of sermons for his Sunday services and hunting tree bark and ginseng. He squats by a small sumac and pulls out his curved knife. He cuts near the roots, then three feet above. He slashes the length of tree and cleanly strips away the bark, revealing a trunk that is as round and shiny as an elephant tusk.

"In the summertime I peel sumac and get 65 cents a pound," he says. "I can get $28 a pound for yellow root. . . . It's been rough for a while. I got some teeth that need pulling. Eight of 'em. And I got a pain in my stomach. But I got no (medical) card and no money. You go to the hospital with no medical card and, buddy, they'll tell you to go home."

Ed's stepfather died of cancer in Ruby's camper two years ago.

Ed rises from the sumac and smiles at an apple tree in white blossom and walks back to his mother's camper. The daughter of a coal miner, Ruby had the first of her five children when she was 14. She lives on $466 a month and is still paying off - $20 a month - her husband's $3,000 funeral. Her eyes are weak, but she has no glasses and reads with a magnifying glass.

"It's rough, but Ed and me do it," says Ruby, who is 59. "We don't eat breakfast. People gives me clothes."

Ruby coughs, her little body rattling from head to toe. "At times I feel I could whoop the world," she laughs. "And other times the world done got me."

Ruby steps out of her camper onto the dirt path with Ed. She hugs a visitor goodbye. A tear is in her eye.

"Come back again," she says.

"Yes," says Ed. "Come again."

They turn away. Ruby melts into her camper. Ed kicks down the dirt path to his broken car parked alongside his trailer.

Jim Bailey paces under a wasps' nest hanging from the tin roof of his weathered porch.

He's wearing a black-smeared ball cap, plaid shirt and gray jacket. His feet move like weights in untied boots. His daughter, Jonna, steps barefoot on the porch, but she sees strangers and quickly darts to the darkness inside.

"Go away," she says from behind the door, black bangs falling in her eyes, a face as pale as a cloud. "Shoo, shoo."

Jim smiles and gives up trying to explain what he himself doesn't understand. He lets no one inside the house, where he and Jonna use a bucket for a toilet and share a kitchen with rats. A potato, corn and noodle dish lies in the dirt under the kitchen window. Flies are buzzing and cans and boxes of Tater Tots have been thrown in the dry stream bed that twists barren to the Red Branch Creek.

"Shoo, shoo."

Jim unfolds an electric bill of $76.29. He looks at it in the shade coming

from the boxwoods and elms that stand crowded against the mountain.

"How am I going to pay this?" he says, staring at another shanty that collapsed into splinters during last winter's snowstorms.

Jim stands quiet for a moment. The breeze is on him. His bushy red eyebrows curl over milky blue eyes, and gray hair bunches out of his chest and crawls up his neck. His face is patches of gray stubble as if he shaved with dull and sharp razors at the same time. He smiles, one tooth the color of tobacco curves from gums as pink as raw pork.

Jonna stirs inside. Jim goes to her and returns to the porch with a slim plastic folder. He lays it on the railing. He slides out three photographs, the only pictures he owns. His rough hands treat them delicately, masterpieces in a life that has seen few riches.

One is of his brother in Michigan.

Two others are of Jonna. One at her graduation, at a time when she wore a happier face and led a life less cloistered. Jim steps forward with the pictures, an old man with a sick daughter and a house that's falling apart in the summer sun. Jonna rushes out - the smell of urine swirling behind her - holding up her baggy black pants.


"Go away." She scurries back inside as quickly as she came, a 30-year-old woman with the jerky, graceless movements of a child.

"Sometimes," says Jim, "she takes up a spell."

Jim, who is in his 60s, is the only one to take care of Jonna since his wife died four years ago. Last December, a CAP worker took Jonna to a doctor. It was the first time she had been out of the house in seven years. Because her illness hasn't been fully diagnosed, she receives no government assistance and shares Jim's check of $424 a month.

"Sometimes I go out and borrow money," says Jim. He looks at his house: There are firewood and coal piles in front of it, and the guts of a TV set in the yard; the walls are disjointed as if they were nailed together by a blind carpenter; one of the rooms is caving in; the tin roof is a rusty scab. He and Jonna share the front room, which has only a decaying couch. "That's where the heat's at," he says.

Jim would like to get out more. But Jonna keeps him close to home. Sometimes he roams along Red Branch Creek and, when the season is right, will hunt deer and fish. "I love walking in the sun," he says. "You can see a lot of the country that way." On Sundays, he walks to the Baptist church in

Garrett. The rest of the week he meanders down past the liquor store ("I don't drink anymore") to Woody's Carryout, where he talks to a few buddies and buys some canned foods and noodles.

He says he likes his porch and spends hours just staring at the creek. He whispers that he wishes for a new trailer.

Jonna comes to the door; her toes the only part of her beyond the rotting threshold.

Judy Thornsbury lives on the cusp of the dead coal town of Wayland, past a trestle on a road that squeezes through the mountains to a dirt plateau and a wooden shanty of four tiny rooms shared by 10 people.

The Thornsburys live on $518 a month. Trash spills down their hillside: rusted junk, a Tonka toy, carpet, tables and a clown doll all tangled in vines.

Judy's father, David, is disabled with a heart condition. Her mother, Hester, is as slim as a strip of bamboo. She has a gaunt face with a sharp nose and wrinkles that vary in thickness from thread to fishing line. She is 37 and looks 55.

David is a cheerful man who believes in God. He waits each day for his children to come home from school and gathers them like an armload of packages. He gives their names: Davey, whom everyone calls Buddy Boy; Judy; Denise; Elisha, "who is 13 but looks 10. He wants to be a jockey"; Kendrick, and Roman, "my main man." Two other people share the house: Hester's mother and stepbrother, Jackson, who is 41 and mentally retarded.


"I was born and raised in this little hollow," David says. "I hardly don't get by anymore. . . . Buddy, it's hard sometimes and we've got to watch the moves we make. If any unexpected expense comes up, we get the lick."

David ran out of money in 1986 when he was building a front room addition to the house. "I got the foundation and the framing up," he says, "but I couldn't afford to finish it." CAP chipped in with materials and labor and the room was completed with plywood.

The house is crowded. The whole family can't fit in the kitchen for meals. There's a layer of dirt on the floor, the walls in the bathroom are rotting, and last year roaches ran like water out of the couch. The plywood addition is wearing down. The lack of money has left repairs undone. A doll in a soiled wedding dress stares out from a cabinet.

"No we don't have much," says Judy, sitting on the hood of her mother's wrecked station wagon. "Seems like we don't get the things we need like school supplies, papers and pencils. Oh, I would like more, but there is not more, only the way things are. . . . We care about each other though. . . . My daddy taught us to love each other and care about the people around us and not to do anything to hurt anyone."

Judy, who yearns to be a country singer, writes songs about what David has passed on to her. She sings:

Jesus is my savior.

Jesus is my guide.

He's leading me to heaven

Walking by my side.

Buddy Boy rushes up the hill, patting his new flat-top haircut, long arms swinging from a green tank top. He's 18 and a sophomore in high school. Last summer, he worked for the school system, and the money he earned bought the other children new clothes. He's looking for another job, maybe at the fast food joints that are hiring in Prestonsburg. He can always rely on a few

dollars digging up ginseng roots in the mountains.

"I know these mountains. Been coon hunting since I was 2," says Buddy Boy, who is thinking of enlisting in the Navy.

David - whose heart condition forced him to quit his job as a trash collector and then a janitor - walks up a switchback dirt path. It slants past his father's house, a few tool sheds, a garden and a mule named Sam. David stops to catch his breath. He looks below to the dull tin roof of his home. The children are playing: Buddy Boy and Elisha are popping a BB gun, the girls slip inside and Kendrick and Roman are chasing each other, little puffs of dust rising from their feet.

A camouflage hat shading his sunburned face, David smiles. He heads back to his house, past the hog that will be slaughtered. His children surround him, this man with empty pockets, who plays guitar for the gentle voice of Judy and who would give a stranger the world if he had it.

There is a dream in David, and a little of it lives in Judy, too.

It is of the red brick house that sits about two miles away, around a curve just before road rises. It is an empty house where the land bottoms out by the creek and where tall trees shadow the roof. The green grass is thick as the bristles on a good brush and the windows are clear as water.

"I want to live there one day," says Judy.

"I heard that house costs $100,000," says Buddy Boy.

"Daddy was checking into it," says Judy.

"I don't think we'll ever live there," says Buddy Boy.

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