Homeless Hard to Find, Hard to Help in Rural Areas

We who live in major urban areas have some awareness of homelessness in our midst, even if we’re not actively involved in related services or advocacy. Here in the District of Columbia, for example, we’re likely to see homeless people on the streets or huddled at Metro stations.

And we’ve got two daily newspapers that regularly report on homelessness, not to mention blogs (ahem). We can also know something about homelessness in other large urban areas. Fellow New York Times subscribers, for example, will frequently come upon relevant facts and figures, as well as personal profiles.

But what about homelessness in and around the small towns tucked up in the mountains and dotting the flatlands we see when we drive the interstates?

We know, I suppose, that there’s some desperate poverty there. But for most of us, that’s probably about it — even those who live in states with large or many rural areas.

The issue here isn’t just what we know, but what policymakers and government agencies know and what, assuming they care, they can do.

The Pew Charitable Trust’s Stateline takes up rural homelessness, which, it says, states struggle with. I’m not persuaded all do, though they surely should. Yet the challenges they face are formidable.

To begin with, it’s unusually hard to get a fix on how many homeless people live in rural areas. I’ve written before about flaws in the one-night counts that Continuums of Care must make as a condition of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants they coordinate.

But there are volunteers out there counting. And COCs in major metro areas don’t have all that much turf to cover. They also have an easier time because they have networks of shelters and, in some cases, transitional housing, i.e., limited-term housing with services.

They’re required to keep — and regularly report — data on homeless people in these, as well as others that projects within their ambit serve. So no one has to actually tour every shelter and transitional housing facility for the one-night count.

States allocate the homeless assistance funds they get from HUD based on population, Stateline says. So there are fewer COCs in rural communities. One may have responsibility for coordinating such programs and services as exist in a broad swath of their state.

And for the same reason, as well as others, homeless people are harder to find because the undercounts translate into under-funding for shelters and housing specifically for homeless people. Which, of course, translates into further undercounts.

Rural areas pose other challenges for homeless people and the organizations that could serve them — transportation, for example.

The nearest shelter may be many miles from the field where a homeless family is camping out. A public agency that could connect the family to a source of housing assistance or other benefits that would improve its financial situation may also be many miles away — and nowhere near the shelter.

Needless to say (I hope), no caseworkers can do outreach so extensive as to find them. The family may not know it could get help. It might need persuasion to seek it. Many homeless people in rural areas are ashamed, Stateline says, citing advocates.

Such shame is hardly unique to poor people in non-metro areas, but perhaps it’s more common. I can think of reasons why that might be, e.g., isolation, deeply-ingrained values like self-reliance.

Stateline highlights three state-level efforts to address rural homelessness. The two that are actually state initiatives focus — or focused — on increasing the stock of affordable housing. This, of course, is the prime solution advocated for homelessness generally.

Developing new affordable housing shouldn’t pose special problems in some rural areas. Fredricksburg, Virginia, for example, where Stateline found individuals to profile, is a small town only an hour or so drive from the state capital in one direction and the nation’s capital in another.

Out in the hinterlands, however, developers don’t have much interest in constructing housing, a rural expert at a national affordable housing advocacy nonprofit says. They’d face problems due to inadequate (or no) “municipal infrastructure,” e.g., sewers, water lines, roads their heavy equipment could traverse to sites.

Yet new affordable housing would have to be widely dispersed to help end homelessness among people living in our country’s vast farmlands.

Many homeless people are employed, Stateline says. Doubtful they’d move to gain affordable housing at the risk of having no work. This, I think, would be an extraordinarily high risk for farmworkers. Yet homeless many are — if not officially, then by any reasonable standard.

Some years ago, The New York Times reported eight migrant farmworkers spending nights in a single motel room. As many as a dozen packed into a trailer. These workers don’t qualify as homeless, according to the definition COCs must use.

Nor do somewhat better-off people in rural areas. They’ve got housing, but it’s very old — and in some cases, apparently not all that well-built to begin with. It’s in constant need of major repairs.

Eventually, it can become so dilapidated that people can’t live in it any more — and become homeless, the head of the National Low Income Housing Coalition says.

What’s true for homeowners is also true for farmworkers. A third of the housing for them is “either moderately or severely substandard,” e.g., without hot water, a functional heating system and/or a roof that keeps the rain out, the National Rural Housing Coalition reports.

Yet they’re in places meant for human habitation and so not homeless. Other farmworkers officially are. The New York Times reporter found some sleeping in garages, tool sheds, caves and in the fields.

In short, homelessness and egregiously inadequate housing are a problem in rural areas. Public agencies and nonprofits face some unique challenges there.

Neither our policies nor the related funding streams seem altogether suitable. And it’s doubtful they will be so long as the problem remains at best half-hidden. Remedies for that are a challenge in themselves.

Note: I’m indebted to friend and former guest blogger Matt McKillop, now a research officer at Pew, for alerting me to the Stateline article. I invite any and all of you to contribute grist for my mill. It would not only educate me, but let me know what you find interesting — something I ponder.



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