A Different Kind of Homelessness in Rural America

rural homelessness

There’s a myth about homelessness: that if an area has a problem with it, it’s obvious.

The public may not do much to help, but they can at least see homeless people are there, sleeping in tents under bridges or panhandling at intersections. If those signs aren’t there, we assume the community is free from homelessness, and put it out of our minds.

Rural homelessness doesn’t look like urban homelessness. It looks like people living in cramped cars, couch surfing at the mercy of friends and family, and staying in motels. Instead of sleeping under bridges, they may sleep in abandoned farm buildings or in the woods. They don’t panhandle, because it wouldn’t do much good, and the nearest shelter may be dozens of miles away.

If homeless people are invisible, rural homeless people are even more so.

As of 2018, rural homeless people made up 15 percent of the nation’s total homeless population. This figure is likely to be an underestimation, as homeless people in rural areas are difficult to count. One in three rural Americans say homelessness is a problem in their communities. Truly problematic is the fact that these areas’ politicians often don’t see the homelessness going on in the places they represent, and therefore cannot be effective advocates.

The rates of rural homelessness seem to be going up, too. Since 2013, homelessness among grade-school students has increased 11 percent, although the nationwide rate of homelessness for this age group has only gone up 3 percent.

Rural homelessness is either getting worse, or it’s always been a big problem and only now are we realizing that.

Small Towns Have Fewer Resources

Even though the statistics indicate rural homelessness is on the rise, availability of resources for this population is not. Services for homeless people are funded in large part by the federal government. HUD, which distributes funding for programs like rapid rehousing, tends to focus mainly on urban areas. It basically separates locations into “urban” and “not urban,” with most of its attention going to the former.

Small towns often don’t have homeless shelters or social service agencies. What resources there are could be harder to find. They’re based out of churches or ran by local businesses. People learn about them through word-of-mouth. Seeking help in this way—by asking neighbors and co-workers—can be tricky. It’s hard to keep private issues private in rural communities. Many people fear their situation becoming public and the gossip and judgment that could come with it.

In order to survive and stand a chance of escaping homelessness, people need a network of supports:

  • food pantries
  • shelters
  • substance abuse and mental health counseling
  • job training
  • and more

Case managers play a large role in making referrals and coordinating services. With small towns often spread apart by many miles, case management is nearly impossible.

Transportation is another major problem facing rural homeless people. Without public transportation to fall back on, if one doesn’t have a car or has car problems, maintaining employment and accessing services is extremely difficult. It’s common in rural settings to need to travel to several towns in the same day. Where urban homeless people can access buses or subways when worse comes to worst, rural homeless people become stranded.

Rural Homelessness Comes with Unique Dangers

Due to the lack of resources, many homeless people in rural areas live exposed to the elements. Forty percent of homeless people in rural areas live unsheltered. That’s a higher percentage than homeless people in urban or suburban areas.

People who live unsheltered, such as in tents or cardboard camps, tend to have dramatically shorter lifespans. They more easily fall victim to contagious diseases like Hepatitis A, as well as other health conditions resulting from poor hygiene. Hypothermia and heat stroke can quickly turn deadly. Many homeless people die from exposure to extreme heat or cold.

Housing in rural towns is typically older and in poorer condition. For example, non-urban housing is twice as likely to have incomplete plumbing. Squatters often seek shelter in abandoned, run-down houses, which may have been unoccupied for years and contain structural and environmental hazards. These conditions are preferable to rough sleeping, but often come with just as many dangers.

Communities Need Individualized Solutions

Sadly, sometimes the only option available to rural homeless people is to move. This means leaving behind what’s familiar and any existing safety net and risking it on the hope of better chances in the city. Trading hardship in one setting for hardship in another is not a good solution. It invalidates the attachment and sense of belonging a homeless person may have with his or her environment.

Rural homelessness is very different from urban or suburban homelessness. In order to help those who suffer from it, there need to be programs developed specifically for them. Greater focus on things rural communities lack—transportation, safe housing, case management, etc.—will give them the tools they need to escape homelessness.

A few programs are appearing across the country to address rural homelessness specifically. Colorado’s Coalition for the Homeless connects 14 rural service agencies, better enabling them to provide resources that are needed most. North Dakota’s Housing Incentive Fund allocated $35 million in 2013 for the development of affordable housing. These programs work because they take the unique needs of their communities into consideration.

A better system for counting homeless people in rural areas is also needed, perhaps most of all. Until there’s a reliable method for determining how many homeless people there are in each area, it’s impossible for the government to know how much funding to provide.

Talk to your legislators about providing a better system, along with more complete research on the unique needs rural homeless people have. This will help take this population out of the margins and give them the opportunity to be successful.

Photo courtesy of Matt Palmer on Unsplash

Victoria VanTol

Victoria VanTol


Victoria VanTol holds a master's degree in social work. She is a therapist and freelance writer specializing in topics related to social justice and mental health.

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