Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The face of rural homelessness

Homelessness if often associated with urban places, perhaps due to the fact that urban homeless populations are often geographically concentrated and highly visible. However, a recent study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness (here) found that homelessness is not just an urban problem.

Using 2007 homelessness counts and Census data to examine the prevalence of homelessness in rural and urban places, the study reports that homelessness is, as expected, more prevalent in urban areas on average. In urban places, 29 out of every 10,000 persons are homeless, while the rate is 19 in mostly urban areas. In rural areas, the rate is 14 persons out of every 10,000 persons. The homeless rate in mixed rural/mostly rural places is 12 per 10,000 persons and eight per 10,000 persons in mostly rural areas.

While some may be surprised that the rate of homelessness in rural places is not higher in light of the higher rates of unemployment and poverty in many rural counties, the study goes on to note that the prevalence of homelessness in rural America may be higher than the report concludes. First, the rate of homelessness in the rural areas examined varies more dramatically than the urban areas studied, with rural areas registering some of the highest and lowest homelessness rates. Second, rural homelessness differs from urban homelessness in significant respects. The study notes that:
many extremely poor people in rural areas do not stay in shelters but rather double-up with family or friends or live in substandard housing, and many leave rural areas in search of increased employment opportunities and homeless services.
So what, in addition to a lack of services and employment opportunities and the likelihood of turning to family or friends for assistance, differentiates rural homelessness from urban homelessness?

News reports from local newspapers across rural America are bringing this often-unseen population into focus — and providing some answers to this question in the process. For example, a recent series in the Flathead Beacon sheds light on rural Montana’s growing homeless population. Montana’s homeless rate has been on the rise statewide since the beginning of the recession, increasing by 23 percent between 2007 and 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2008 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. Families represent a disproportionately high percentage of the homeless population in rural Montana. Part two of the Flathead Beacon series, entitled "The Rapid Spread of Rural Homelessness," focuses on homeless families:
The nation’s rural homeless rate is soaring. In Montana, it has really grown wings. But it’s not bums begging for your change on the corner. It’s the kid sitting next to your child in third grade. It’s your co-worker. Montana’s homeless are disproportionately working families. And they’re crowding shelters from Billings to Kalispell.
Nationwide, families represent around 30 percent of the homeless population. This figure is doubled in some of Montana’s rural counties. Interestingly, the article notes that members of many of Montana’s rural homeless families work — sometimes more than one job — but have found it difficult to support themselves as rural economies have been increasingly hampered by the recession. Single women with children are more often the ones who lose their homes. Startlingly, reports may understate the extent of the problem:
It’s not always easy for organizations to find homeless families, as they tend to be more ashamed than individuals and try to remain hidden, said Gloria Edwards, executive director of Bozeman’s Family Promise: ‘They’re not very visible – they’re not the ones standing on street corners.’
This fact also makes it more difficult for local service providers, such as churches and shelters, to provide assistance.

The Flathead Beacon series confirms that, at least in some important respects, rural homelessness differs from urban homelessness. These differences necessitate localized responses to homelessness at the community level. To the extent that law and policymakers at higher scales, such as the state and federal level, view homelessness as an urban phenomenon that primarily affects individuals, they are mistaken. The article mentions that more family-oriented housing facilities are needed to shelter Montana’s homeless families in rural places. But what else can be done to help this unseen population?

In particular, how can rural communities help those who are living out of cars or precariously housed by family and friends, since these populations may be difficult to track and are often not visible? Since rural families are disproportionately represented in many rural areas’ homeless populations, what steps should be taken to ensure that homeless children are adequately cared for? Does the embarrassment associated with losing a home and the stigma of receiving government assistance make it less likely that the rural homeless will seek help? Do these types of programs run counter to the pervasive sense of self-reliance in many of America's most rural places?

While the rates of urban homelessness outpace those of rural homelessness, the current recession is likely aggravating the situation on both sides of the rural-urban divide. More importantly, it is clear that the rural homeless face unique challenges not commonly associated with urban homelessness — and that the special demands of place need to be taken into account when formulating a response.

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