Insights on Homelessness in Rural Texas Revealed through One Teen’s Story

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LUFKIN — Georgia DeVries longs for the days when she used to sleep in a car.

“It felt safer than any house I’ve been in,” the 17-year-old explained.

In the past six years, she estimates that she has lived in at least 13 different places, including various homes with her mother, extended stays with friends and family, and four trips to behavioral health clinics.

However, in November of last year, after staying with her aunt, she found herself in her ex-boyfriend’s broken-down Mitsubishi parked on his family’s property.

Despite its condition, being in the car brought her a sense of peace — most of the time.

This is just one example of how rural Texas teenagers experience homelessness. Their living situation often involves a constant rotation of sheltered and unsheltered environments, alternating between friends’ couches, stays with extended family, and nights spent outdoors. Homeless shelters are not a viable option in Lufkin, a town of 34,000 people located 90 miles south of Tyler, the nearest major city. Shelters there do not accept unaccompanied minors unless there are reports of violent abuse.

According to experts, a lack of shelters is just one of many factors that put homeless teens in rural areas at a greater disadvantage compared to their urban counterparts. These teens also face a scarcity of well-paying jobs, higher poverty rates, and increased drug abuse.

Poverty rates in Texas rose in 30% of counties between 2018 and 2022, with a majority of those counties being rural. The East Texas region had higher rates of opioid abuse compared to the rest of the state, according to a regional needs assessment based on data from 2018 to 2020. A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2022 found that rural communities in Texas were among the eight states with higher drug overdose rates than their urban counterparts.

Teenagers in rural areas are also more challenging to track, making it difficult for policymakers to formulate appropriate solutions based on accurate data.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 650,000 individuals were recorded as homeless in the United States in 2023, marking a significant increase from 2022. This statistic is based on an annual census conducted on a single night in January.

A 2021 study by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, a public policy think tank that supports families, revealed that rural and nonrural communities have similar rates of youth homelessness. However, these annual counts, which serve as the basis for Chapin Hall’s research, often come under criticism for their inability to accurately measure homelessness, even in urban areas.

Erin Carreon, a researcher at the University of Chicago, suggests that there is likely a significant undercount of homelessness in rural areas. This is because rural teens are often overlooked by census takers.

For instance, during the 2023 count, Georgia was with her girlfriend, which allowed her to avoid being included in the census.

“When we think of homelessness, we might imagine people in shelters or individuals on busy street corners,” Carreon explained. “In rural areas, young people are more likely to stay on couches, sleep in vehicles if they have them, and they tend to find secluded and hidden spots.”

Georgia used to live with her grandmother and legal guardian, Jan DeVries, six years ago. At that time, her mother asked her to move to Beaumont, a larger city located approximately 100 miles southeast of Lufkin.

Initially, Georgia was excited about the move. However, within just one week of being in her new home, she realized she had made a mistake. She decided to leave and move in with her girlfriend in Lufkin instead, where she stayed for two years.

Georgia’s lack of stable relationships and her independent streak contributed to her frequent moves, according to DeVries. After their breakup, Georgia would stay with friends and family, sometimes for only one night.

Georgia acknowledges that she played a significant role in contributing to her own homelessness. She admits that her mental health is not the best and is actively seeking help through weekly therapy sessions.

Although DeVries has been one of the most stable influences in Georgia’s life, their relationship grew strained due to Georgia’s sexual identity.

DeVries tried not to judge Georgia when she first came out as a lesbian at around 14 years old, and later identified as bisexual.

“I just didn’t like the fact that she was making her life more difficult for herself,” DeVries admitted.

A study conducted by Chapin Hall found that LGBTQ+ youths are twice as likely to experience homelessness compared to their peers.

Georgia found solace in the company of stray black cats that roamed the area near the broken-down car

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