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Thu Mar 13, 2014, 09:10 PM

Appalachian Poverty Project re squatters in hollows

In my recent reading about the economic issues of Appalachia, nothing has been more haunting than this description of people living in coal company land as squatters in eastern Kentucky, a level of poverty that sounds like a dystopian nightmare. Has anyone here seen these areas?

Poverty in Appalachia is widespread and severe. The poorest families seem to gravitate to areas that are often called the ‘hollows’. The hollows are back areas in the mountains - these areas are largely owned by coal companies and many of the poor live there as squatters. The coal companies do not seem to care that the squatters are there and seem to expect them. When the coal ‘plays out’, the mining operations move out and the squatters move in. A new community then begins.

Abandoned trailers and abandoned company buildings become homes. Sometimes FEMA trailers are available. Those who can get a FEMA trailer are lucky, indeed, as these are likely to be fairly new and in reasonable condition.

Winters are difficult. Many children do not wear shoes in warm weather, but save what they can get for cold weather. Their heating systems are both friend and enemy. Coal is a cheap and, sometimes, free way to heat, but trailers are not properly equipped to heat with coal. Many of the trailers that I have seen have a stovepipe sticking out from a window. Fires are common and fire trucks are not readily available in the hollows.

The roads in the hollows are mostly single lane, and are widened every few hundred yards so that oncoming traffic can pass. I haven’t ventured into the hollows except in a four wheel drive vehicle. (We once had to abandon the road when a vehicle approached. Our driver was a local who knew the roads). Many of these roads were built by the coal companies for their equipment.

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Reply Appalachian Poverty Project re squatters in hollows (Original post)
carolinayellowdog Mar 2014 OP
theHandpuppet Mar 2014 #1
A Little Weird Mar 2014 #2
get the red out Mar 2014 #3

Response to carolinayellowdog (Original post)

Thu Mar 13, 2014, 11:58 PM

1. I've seen these kind of conditions in plenty of hollows...

... but not, to my knowledge, any on land owned by coal companies. Access roads to mines are often in remote, hazardous areas and are intended to last only as long as the companies need them to transport the coal. So once they move out those roads are not maintained. I have traveled a few in Pike County, KY and just maneuvering a regular car on them was enough to scare the bejeebus out of me. On some there is room for just one car and no turnaround, so you have to back your way down again! A large part of the problem is the nature of where they build the roads... because the bottom of the hollows is the only place level enough for roads, it also means that every time it rains all the water running down the surrounding hillsides floods the hollows and washes them away.
Over the years I've seen folks living in school buses, decrepit trailers that look like old construction huts, you name it. Fires are indeed common during the winter months. I remember many a winter of my youth when we'd look across the Ohio and see entire ridges of the Kentucky hillsides on fire. At night it appeared as suspended ropes of flame dancing in the dark.
The worst conditions I ever witnessed were in remote areas of the WV mountains, but that was years ago. My father would take us by train down to visit relatives in Bluefield and you'd see families living in shacks perched on the mountainsides. Dirt floors, animals running in and out of the house, barely clothed and fed -- and no road at all. I guess they used the tracks as a kind of road.
Using scraps of coal as fuel is common for poor folks. My mother grew up dirt poor in a run down little house next to the railroad tracks. When a coal train passed through, the children were sent out with baskets to collect any nuggets of coal that fell from the hoppers. It was all that kept them from freezing to death but my mother never did get over a childhood of being perpetually cold. A lot of the kids and adults suffered terribly from respiratory illnesses and some died. Tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis and pneumonia were common.
Hunger is a perpetual problem. In my old home county the schools have a backpack program that sends children home with food for the weekends and through the summer because for many children the only meals they get are at school. Unfortunately they found out that the parents of some children were stealing and selling the food for meth, so they had to teach the children how to hide their food from their parents.

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Response to carolinayellowdog (Original post)

Fri Mar 14, 2014, 12:29 AM

2. Eastern Kentucky

I've been through some very poor areas in eastern Kentucky that look like a third-world country. There were some trailers and shacks that did not look fit for human habitation but were being lived in. But not all of eastern Kentucky is like that.

'Hollows' are much more general than what he's describing. A hollow is just the valley between two hills or mountains. Most of them are not deeply impoverished areas. And I haven't heard of squatters except in a historical context, but I suppose that could be happening to some degree these days. Most coal operations now are mountain top removal mines so they blow up the mountain and fill in the hollow and then try to sell the flat land to developers or even local governments.

Here are a couple of articles from last year with some pictures from Owsley County (the poorest county in the U.S. according to the Huffingtonpost article).


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Response to A Little Weird (Reply #2)

Wed Mar 19, 2014, 10:58 AM

3. Absolutely

I have see it also. But didn't know about the squatter aspect. Most of what I've seen though were ancient, dilapidated houses that were once part of thriving communities in the 20's - 40's until veins of coal played out and they gradually fell into disrepair. I have seen very old mobile homes too. When I was a kid in the 70s there was one group of kids who got off the bus and went into a house that was mostly made of plywood. Then the bus would move on to our middle class neighborhood that looked like any sub-division in the country.

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