The Challenges of Ending Homelessness in Rural America

written by Steve Berg
October 12, 2012

Earlier this week I had the honor of attending a planning session in Bloomsburg, Pa., sponsored by the Pennsylvania Housing Alliance and Bloomsburg University. The session kicked off planning in the two rural counties around Bloomsburg. It was an opportunity to review some of what we know about homelessness and how to approach it in rural and small-town America.

For years, the Alliance has done deliberate work to focus on rural communities. Homelessness is often thought of as an urban problem, and of course most homeless people are in cities. But homelessness definitely exists in rural areas as well. The impacts of rural homelessness are just as devastating to those experiencing it, while rural areas are less likely than cities to have programs specifically designed to help homeless people.

Rural communities seeking to end homelessness need the same broad categories of change as cities, although they will take different forms. Rural communities need a clear consensus on the goal, as well as commitment from the entire community and a sense of urgency about solving the problem. Rural communities also need a way to monitor progress and effectiveness in addressing the issue, and enough resources to get the job done.

That being said, there are a number of challenges that are unique to rural areas:

  • The scale of the problem of homelessness in rural areas is limited, compared to urban areas, which means that extensive programs specific to homeless people are unlikely to exist. Many rural areas have no shelter at all, and homeless people often must live outside or in cars or abandoned buildings. Doubling up is common, as it is in urban areas.
  • Progress will require that mainstream antipoverty programs take a leadership role. Mental health agencies and TANF agencies are often the key leaders on solving the problem of homelessness.
  • There is often no particular person or agency that is an easy fit for the task of developing and monitoring the implementation of a plan to end homelessness. Where it works, this role may be filled by a particular county official, a faith or business leader, an educational institution, or an influential volunteer.
  • Coordination is especially important. Progress will rely on a set of people for whom addressing homelessness is only part of their job duties.
  • A range of housing options will need to be considered. Typical urban apartment buildings are often not where most lower-income people live. There may be no expertise to back up a housing development strategy.
  • Working with state government is particularly important. Many of the federal resources designed for rural areas flow through the state.

In many rural communities, the idea of rapid re-housing is a natural fit. People working in human services have the attitude that someone who loses their housing should receive immediate help finding new housing, and they will do whatever is necessary to make that happen.

I’m happy to say that everyone who attended the session in Bloomsburg was devoted to aggressively tackling these challenges , as many people in rural communities around the country are also doing.

The Alliance already has a number of useful resources on the Rural Homelessness Section of our website that people working to end homelessness in rural communities will want to investigate.