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The two fundamental causes of homelessness in the United States—lack of affordable housing and inability to pay for adequate housing—are not limited to urban communities, and yet “poverty in rural America is often unseen, unacknowledged, and unattended” (National Catholic Rural Life Conference 2000; www.ncrlc.com). The same can be said of homelessness in rural America. Differences between urban and rural communities extend far beyond simple measures such as size, density, and distance; even definitions of the word rural can vary from agency to agency. Still, recent research has helped reveal the extent of homelessness in rural areas and the characteristics of the rural homeless. It has also called into question whether current approaches to defining and studying homelessness—approaches that have generally been developed in urban settings—are appropriate for rural areas. Perhaps these lessons can inform future efforts to end homelessness in rural America.
One challenge in studying homelessness in rural areas is that there is no single definition of “rural” for statistical and other purposes. Rural communities are generally thought to be places with small, low-density populations, often remote from larger cities and towns. In reality, these geographic characteristics exist on a continuum and there is no obvious dividing line between “urban” and “rural.” Two of the most common definitions are based on standards developed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Bureau of the Census. Both define rural areas as those that fall outside certain areas: “metropolitan statistical areas” (or MSAs) in the OMB standard, or “urbanized areas and urban clusters” in the Census definition. MSAs are composed of one or more counties, and are defined based on population size and density, and the extent to which fringe counties are economically tied to core metropolitan counties. Because county-level data are quite plentiful, MSAs are often used as a basis for comparing urban and rural America statistically. On the other hand, the Census defines “urbanized areas and urban clusters” by settlement size and density, ignoring county boundaries. The Census approach offers a somewhat purer measure of “rural” but is more difficult to use (Hewitt 1989). Data from the 2000 census show that 21 percent of the nation’s population (or 59.1 million people) live in rural areas according to the Census definition, while a slightly lower share, 17.4 percent (or 49.2 million people), live in non-metropolitan areas as defined by OMB (U.S. Department of Agriculture 2003). But the two groups are not identical: About half (50.8 percent) of all Census-defined rural residents actually live in counties classified as falling within an MSA. Moreover, among residents of counties not included in MSAs, 41.1 percent live in urban areas.
Why Place Matters
Whatever standard one uses to distinguish rural from urban areas, it is clear that the differences between them extend far beyond size, density, and distance. Living in a rural community has important economic, social, and cultural implications, and these in turn affect how people experience poverty and homelessness, and also how communities can best address these problems.
Housing costs are often lower in rural areas, but so too are incomes, with the result that rent burdens in rural communities are often as high or higher than those in urban places. Furthermore, opportunities for raising one’s income are much more limited in rural areas. Lower levels of education, less competition for workers, and fewer high-skilled jobs in the occupational mix result in lower wages and higher levels of unemployment, underemployment, and seasonal employment in rural communities. In addition, low population density discourages the development of workplace supports and infrastructure such as education and training, child care, and public transportation. Many of these factors also explain why homelessness is not evenly distributed across rural areas.
Higher-than-average levels of homelessness are found in communities that are primarily agricultural, in regions with economies based on declining extractive industries (such as mining, forestry, or fishing), in areas with persistent poverty, and in places experiencing economic growth (Aron and Fitchen 1996; Burt 1996). Those with growing economies include, for example, communities with new or expanding industrial plants that attract more job-seekers than can be absorbed, and areas on the urban fringe that attract new businesses and higher-income residents; these trends can drive up taxes and other living expenses to the detriment of longtime residents. Such places include ski resorts, upscale retirement communities, and counties experiencing a boom in vacation home sales. In communities with persistent poverty, such as Appalachia, young able-bodied workers often relocate to urban areas in search of employment, but if unsuccessful, they return to their home communities and find themselves homeless. Other people in impoverished or primarily agricultural areas may become homeless because of changing economic conditions, including lower labor demand as a result of mechanized and corporate farming, and a shrinking service sector because of declining population. Finally, communities located along major transportation routes often receive homeless people literally “off the inter-state”—people on the road looking for work, or transients who run out of resources. The most recent statistics on poverty across the country reveal that not only is poverty disproportionately rural, it is a persistent problem. Data from the 2000 census indicate that 13.4 percent of rural Americans were living in poverty, compared to 10.8 percent of more urban Americans. Among the nation’s 500 poorest counties, non-metropolitan (rural) counties outnumbered metro counties by 11 to 1. Among the 500 counties with the lowest per-capita income, non-metropolitan (rural) counties outnumbered metro counties by 25 to 1 (Miller and Rowley 2002). The poorest counties—those with poverty rates of 20 percent or more—are found in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, the lower Rio Grande, and the Northern Plains. In many of these counties, such poverty rates have been documented in every decennial census since 1960.
Findings from the Rural Sociological Society’s Task Force on Persistent Rural Poverty, as well as other sources, dispel many common myths about America’s poor. The vast majority (73 percent) of poor rural Americans are white, another 24 percent are African-American, and the remainder are Native Americans (Hispanics of any ethnicity account for 5 percent of all poor Americans). The majority of poor rural families are among the “working poor.” In almost two-thirds (64.6 percent) of the families, at least one person has a job; in about one-quarter of them, two or more members have a job. Poor people in rural areas are much less likely than their urban counterparts to live in female-headed families. Only 17 percent of them live in female-headed families with children at home—about the same share who live in married-couple families with children at home: 18 percent (Summers and Sherman 1997). The majority (55 percent) of poor rural Americans live in the South, another quarter (25 percent) are in the North Central region, and the remaining are in the Mountain (8 percent), Pacific (5 percent), Middle Atlantic (5 percent), and New England (2 percent) regions of the country. These patterns also vary by race/ethnicity: Poor rural African-Americans are concentrated in the south (97 percent), while poor rural Hispanics or Latinos/as are concentrated in the Southwest and on the West Coast. Poor rural Native Americans are concentrated in the Southwest (particularly in the area where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet), the Upper Great Plains (especially North Dakota and South Dakota), and eastern Oklahoma (Summers and Sherman 1997).
Characteristics Of Rural Homeless
During the 1990s, a general picture of the characteristics of rural homeless people emerged from a variety of state and local studies. Compared to their urban counterparts, rural homeless people are more likely to be white, female, married, currently working, younger, homeless for the first time, and homeless for a shorter period of time than their urban counterparts (Burt 1996; National Coalition for the Homeless 1999). Other research has also suggested higher rates of domestic violence and lower rates of alcohol and substance abuse among the rural homeless, but these findings have not been not consistent across studies (National Coalition for the Homeless 1999; Burt, Aron, and Lee 2001). Finally, some rural communities have large shares of Native Americans and migrant workers among their homeless populations (Burt 1996).
Some of the most recent data on people homeless in the United States come from the 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC). As the name suggests, the data are national in scope and include communities outside MSAs in addition to central cities and those in the “balance of MSA” (see Burt, Aron, and Lee 2001 for a detailed description of this study and its findings). NSHAPC used a service-based sampling strategy, identifying and counting only those homeless people who had contact with some type of homeless assistance program; these included outreach programs, drop-in centers, and mobile food programs that serve homeless people who do not use shelters. NSHAPC documented an estimated 444,000 homeless adults and children using such services during an average week between October and November 1996 (Burt, Aron, and Lee 2001). Of this total, 69 percent were in central city areas, another 21 percent were in suburban or urban fringe areas of MSAs, and 9 percent (or about 41,000 people) were in rural areas (defined as outside an MSA). In terms of rates of homelessness, the NSHAPC data indicate that anywhere between about 7 and 14 people per 10,000 in rural areas were homeless. Projections to the entire rural homeless population (not just those using services) increase this range to about 9 to 17 people per 10,000. In all cases, these rates were about one-fifth those of central city locations, but were slightly higher than those of suburban-urban fringe locations.
The data also suggest that compared to poor people generally (about 23 percent of whom live in rural areas), service-using homeless people are more concentrated in urban areas. Other NSHAPC findings point to the possibility that some urban homeless people may have originated in rural areas. Almost half (44 percent) of the homeless people interviewed had left the community where their current homeless spell began, and only 28 percent of these “movers” began their current homeless episode in a central city. The NSHAPC data also show that these people tended to move from smaller communities to larger ones and that the smaller the originating community, the more likely they were to move to a larger one. Interestingly, the lack of shelters or other social services was not a major reason for leaving their home communities—losing housing and needing work were more important—but central cities were their primary destination, and most of these movers did identify the availability of shelters and other homeless assistance services as a major draw.
NSHAPC also confirms many of the distinctive characteristics of people homeless in rural areas. Compared to other homeless people, they are less likely to be black or Hispanic, and have completed high school. They are also much more likely than others to be married, divorced, separated, or widowed. Those in rural areas are also heavily concentrated in the age range from 35 to 44 years, are more likely to be working, and less likely to be receiving any means-tested government benefits such as food stamps, welfare, supplemental security income, and so on. Rural homeless people are as likely as other homeless people to have problems with alcohol, drugs, or mental illness—about two-thirds do—but the types of problems differ by community. The rural homeless identified in NSHAPC are much more likely than their urban counterparts to have had recent problems with alcohol, and they are much less likely to have had recent problems with drugs or mental illness. They are also much more likely to have been incarcerated as juveniles and as adults. Other NSHAPC results indicate that people homeless in rural communities are much more likely to be homeless for the first time and for a shorter episode, to have no public or private health insurance, and to have needed—but not been able to see—a doctor or nurse in the past year. With the exception of the much higher rates of problems with alcohol, most of these findings are consistent with those of earlier smaller-scale studies of rural homelessness (National Coalition for the Homeless 1999).
In addition to homeless people, NSHAPC documented the nationwide presence of almost 40,000 homeless assistance programs of various types; a third of these were located in rural areas. There were some interesting urban-rural variations within the four broad types of programs. The majority (56 percent) of all programs distributing vouchers for emergency shelter in 1996, for example, were located in rural areas, but only 15 percent of transitional housing programs were. Conversely, soup kitchens were much more likely to be found in central cities than in rural areas (65 versus 15 percent). These findings reflect fundamental differences in the social service structures of urban versus rural communities. Permanent housing structures and soup kitchens designed to serve walk-ins are not efficient systems for helping homeless people in rural areas who are not concentrated in any one place geographically.
The greater use of mainstream agencies programs by rural people, including public health programs and financial and housing assistance, is also confirmed by these NSHAPC findings. The high rates of incarceration among rural homeless people documented by NSHAPC is of particular interest, given the large numbers of rural communities that have turned to new prisons and other correctional facilities as a way of supporting their local economies (Kilborn 2001; Beale 1996).
Without effective discharge planning, one unintentional consequence of these large and growing prison populations may be higher levels of homelessness. Such plans typically include an estimated discharge date, programs that prisoners complete while in prison, medical records, and arrangements for post-release housing, medical and mental health care, and other community-based services. In some states, this planning is the formal responsibility of corrections administrations, while in other states it is done more informally by correctional health providers, community-based social service providers, or other prison-based social services staff (Community Shelter Board 2002). In the absence of effective policies and practices for discharge planning, many prisons simply release ex-offenders directly into local homeless shelters. There are similar concerns about people being released from hospitals, treatment facilities, and psychiatric institutions.
Addressing Homelessness In Rural Areas
While additional research is clearly needed on homelessness in rural communities, much has been learned since the first systematic, mostly local, studies of rural homeless people were conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One ongoing challenge, which has not necessarily been resolved, has to do with definitions. Many perceive a fundamental disconnect between definitions of homelessness that have been developed with urban settings in mind—including, most importantly, the main federal definition as embodied in the Stewart B. McKinney Act—and the realities of homelessness in rural areas, where there are few or no shelters, and where settlement patterns are so dispersed that even “living on the street” may not be possible. Many homeless people in rural areas double up with relatives or other families, or live in abandoned homes or substandard or severely overcrowded housing, often without plumbing or heat. Also, while few people sleep on the streets of rural towns, many live in their vehicles at campgrounds or in woods or remote hills and valleys (Burt 1996).
It is debatable whether definitions of rural homelessness should be expanded to include people who are precariously housed, especially since there are many such people in urban areas too. But rural homeless advocates and service providers have argued against restrictive definitions that limit people’s eligibility for critical homeless assistance services. Even those who find the McKinney Act definition adequate want more flexibility in how it is applied:
In the final analysis, the total number of homeless persons, when homelessness has [such] a broad definition, is really less important than the segmentation of the homeless population into meaningful components, so that policy makers can design appropriate programs for specific groups. (Kondratas 1991, p. 646)
Many of the lessons of the 1990s have to do with how rural homeless people can be studied and effectively served. Like NSHAPC, most studies of rural homelessness rely on identifying homeless people through various service agencies (Kentucky Housing Corporation 2001; Koebel, Murphy, and Brown 2001). The absence of homeless-specific agencies in rural areas makes it essential that these studies include broad-spectrum mainstream ones such as welfare and social services agencies, public and mental health departments, community action agencies, public housing agencies, Salvation Army centers, Legal Aid offices, and faith-based and other nonprofit organizations that serve poor people. Even for the NSHAPC study, an interesting deviation from the original sampling design had to be made in rural areas because there were so few homeless specific service programs: The standard for inclusion in the study was expanded to include programs serving homeless even if this group was not their intended population focus, and about one-fourth of all rural programs in NSHAPC were recorded as a result of this expansion. Interestingly, the duration of the data collection in rural areas has also expanded in recent years. Studies relying on one night counts or “sweeps” of the shelter and street population have been replaced by one- or two-month-long periods during which service agencies collect information on all people they serve who may be homeless. (They also collect unique but anonymous identifiers that allow one to “unduplicate” counts over time and across agencies so that the same homeless person is not counted more than once.) This longer time period is especially helpful in rural areas where homeless people are not as visible or as easy to locate.
Mainstream social service agencies are important to include in studies of rural homelessness because it is these agencies that actually serve homeless people. This has led many to argue that rural homeless services should be improved by enhancing the capacities of existing mainstream agencies, rather than by building a highly specialized homeless-specific service structure similar to those in urban centers. Understanding differences in the social service systems of urban and rural communities also has important implications for how federal programs and funding streams are structured. For example, applications from rural agencies to the federal government should not be downgraded simply because they do not target specific subgroups of homeless people; such targeting simply may not make sense in many rural parts of the country. Moreover, services that are sometimes considered “nice extras” in urban areas can be critical to the success of rural service agencies. In rural communities, for example, outreach may literally be the “front door” of an agency; without it, many people would not be served. Other activities, such as improving communications through more or better technology, and improving transportation for agency staff and clients, are also very important in rural communities (Burt 1996). The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently sponsored a study profiling four different “model” approaches to developing homeless service systems in rural areas. The four partnerships included a county system in New York state, a multi-county/ regional system in Alabama, a rural statewide system in Arizona, and a statewide system in Ohio (Housing Assistance Council 2002).
Some observers believe that the United States has done an adequate job of building up an emergency response system for homeless people and must now go beyond this by focusing on prevention and longer-lasting housing and support services. Key support services include child care, substance abuse treatment, and in rural areas, transportation (National Alliance to End Homelessness 2000; Burt 2001). It is not clear from existing studies whether rural communities have adequate emergency response systems, but few would argue that they do need longer-lasting homeless prevention, housing, and support services. Indeed, in both national and local studies, rural homeless people and service providers consistently place transitional and permanent housing among the top needs of homeless people (Burt, Aron, and Lee 2001; Kentucky Housing Corporation 2001; Koebel, Murphy, and Brown 2001).
As in urban areas, effectively ending homelessness in rural communities will require comprehensive policies on affordable housing, economic development, employment and training, and on poverty more generally. It is also important to recognize that that because place really does matter when it comes to being homeless and poor, these policies may not resemble those that have been successful in urban areas. Rural and non-metropolitan communities have been largely neglected in public policy, and recent research on rural homelessness may help change this. Developing what has been called “a national rural public policy” (Castle 2001), and committing adequate resources to implementing these policies, can go a long way toward solving rural America’s most persistent problems, including poverty and homelessness.
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