Health With a Capital H

Rural Homelessness: An Unseen Population

January 16, 2013

By Rebecca Willingham, Senior Exhibit Outreach Specialist

Rural Homelessness: An Unseen Population

Those who live in urban areas are often aware of the homeless population that shares local parks, street corners, and shelters. Many people consider homelessness a solely urban problem.

If you pay close attention, though, you’ll see that homelessness doesn’t stop at the city lines. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, over 670,000 individuals and families don’t have a permanent place to live—and an estimated 7% of those people live in rural areas.

While the circumstances that lead to homelessness vary, some common reasons include:

  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Poverty
  • Domestic violence
  • Mental Illness
  • Substance Abuse

In rural areas, poverty is 1.2 to 2.3 times more likely to be a problem than in urban areas, which may contribute to poor rural communities having some of the highest rates of homelessness in the country, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. Those who are homeless in rural areas may be harder to see. Whereas in cities many of the homeless population live on the streets or in shelters, in rural areas, it is more common for people to live in cars, campers, or crowded in with other family members in houses that are too small and possibly substandard.

The Community’s Role in Reducing Homelessness

During the 2012 National Zarrow Mental Health Symposium & Mental Health America Annual Conference, one session entitled “Homeless on the Range: Homelessness in Frontier and Rural Communities” focused on Montana and Vermont. Presenting at the session were:

  • Sherri Downing of the Adovcates for Human Potential, Inc.
  • Brian Smith, the Housing Program Administrator at the Vermont Department of Mental HEalth
  • Dr. Sam Tsemberis, the CEO of Pathways to Housing

Two of the main challenges that they addressed were the lower number of service providers and longer distance of travel required to reach point of service. All three presenters agreed that collaboration between traditional and nontraditional points of service is important to address homelessness in rural areas. Collaboration helps to increase the number of possible resources provided to individuals and families that need help. It also increases the acceptance of programs in areas that may be serving populations that have been stigmatized.

Mr. Smith and Dr. Tsemberis collaborate with Pathways Vermont, a program that works to help find housing options for people who live with mental illness and are homeless. This program is a good example of nontraditional groups being involved in program development. Some of the community members that helped bring awareness of the need for programs like Pathways Vermont included the local business association and local law enforcement. Ms. Downing mentioned that some communities in Montana have organized interfaith “hospitality” teams that provide short-term living situations, food, and other types of assistance to help individuals and families that are facing homelessness or who are trying to transition into a permanent living situation.

Technology’s Role in Addressing Rural Homelessness

 Mr. Smith and Dr. Tsemberis also discussed technology as a way to help address the issue of distance to services. To reduce the amount of travel required while still maintaining a strong service infrastructure for the program participants, Pathways Vermont has begun using the free Google+ Hangouts tool and other forms of technology, which allow staff to interact with each other without requiring several people to travel long distances. The program has also used video visits via computers provided by Pathways Vermont to maintain regular contact between case managers and clients.

When addressing rural homelessness, communities will continue to need to be creative in how they build programs and use limited resources. As the “Homeless on the Range: Homelessness in Frontier and Rural Communities” session showed, technology and community outreach are stepping stones that play a major role in helping those who are homeless in rural areas.