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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Gorman

Homelessness is Not Just a City Thing.....

Homelessness and Rural Communities


All too often when people think of homelessness they think of urban areas. Homelessness in the area where I live is not an isolated incident. Rural homelessness is everywhere.

Rural Communities and Homelessness

Homelessness touches the lives of people from all walks of life irrespective of where they live. It is not confined to cities and occurs in rural areas as well. Who is experiencing homelessness in rural areas?  All sorts of people such as white, black, Hispanic, and both women, children, and men are impacted by homelessness. Each person’s story is unique. Three significant factors in the lives of people who are experiencing homelessness in rural communities are the high cost of housing, lack of transportation, and the distance between different service providers.


Awareness of homelessness in rural communities needs to be elevated so people understand more about the situation and the people impacted. It is important to reduce the stigma around homelessness as this will increase the likelihood of people jumping in to help others and working to solve problems. Local communities, nonprofits, and various citizen groups need to come together to reduce homelessness.

Rural Homelessness versus Urban Homelessness

When most people think of homelessness they think of panhandling and people sleeping on the street. These people do not represent the majority of people experiencing homelessness in either urban or rural areas – but that is a post for another day. There are 5 key differences between homelessness in rural and urban populations.

Access to Services: Shelters and food banks in rural areas are few and far between and often do

not exist at all. In urban environments, people can walk to services as there are more service providers from government agencies to churches.

1.    Visibility: The challenge of homelessness in the city is self-evident. In rural areas, many people live in their cars, sleep in the woods, and even barns. They are often invisible.

2.    Transportation: A lack of transportation in rural areas is a unique challenge since destinations are often far apar and there is no reliable public transportation. These destinations include places where people can get a steady job, can receive healthcare, and other important services.

3.    Employment: In urban areas, there are frequently places of employment close together and within walking distance such as fast-food restaurants. Having access to entry-level positions is critical. In rural or suburban areas these employers are spread out.

4.    Social Isolation: Rural homelessness leads to greater isolation and the stigma associated with experiencing homelessness is more significant.


Conditions of Living Arrangement

Challenging conditions are the norm when it comes to rural homelessness. Frequently people live in their cars or makeshift shelters. Both, in a way, provide a little privacy but are less than ideal. Other people will “couch surf” where they move from family members' or friends' houses over some time. This usually ends in conflict and these options become untenable. The end results if that if no housing option is identified then the individual will likely live outdoorsin the elements.

Finding Housing Quickly

Any discussion about poverty must include housing since it is the largest expense of most people. People who are making minimum wage see 50-70% of their income go to housing. It leaves little else for utilities, health care, etc. Studies have shown that when people who are experiencing homelessness are moved quickly into housing the better their outcome. It is not just a matter of having a roof over your head it is also the ability to receive support services more readily. These services would include mental health support and job training.


 Building Relationships with Government Agencies

Many nonprofit agencies have built relationships with various government agencies. These partnerships allow services to be provided in a manner that is more efficient than the government. Partnerships of this nature can include staffing shelters, providing case management services, and housing initiatives.

Forging Connections with Churches

Whether it is a nonprofit or a government agency being connected to churches is a good idea. Churches often act as a community hub. When people are encountering difficulties they will often approach churches before they engage a government agency.

Furthermore, churches can act as a platform for fundraising, mobilizing resources, and campaigns regarding homelessness. Moreover, many churches have food pantries and conduct clothing drives.

Local Partnerships with Businesses

Beyond government agencies and churches, focusing on partnerships such as the Chamber of Commerce can lead to employment training resources and actual job opportunities. Resources such as this provide another stabilizing resource to people. The first is housing and the second is employment.

Resources for Addressing Rural Homelessness

1.    HUD Exchange: The HUD Exchange is a website where you can access free resources, training, and tools for implementing strategies to prevent and end homelessness.

2.    National Alliance to End Homelessness: An essential resource that includes data and research for policy makers. Further, information can be gathered for policy debates and for education.

3.    Rural Health Information Hub: Provides resources pertaining to rural health, and information specific to homelessness.

4.    Rural Community Assistance Partnership: The Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) is a national network of nonprofit partners with over 350 technical assistance providers across the country. RCAP works to improve the quality of life in rural America starting at the tap.

5.    National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty: A national organization dedicated to using the power of the law to end and prevent homelessness and to protect the rights of people experiencing homelessness.

6.    The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation.

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