Rural homelessness is a topic that gets very little widespread coverage in the media, which may signal to the general public that homelessness is an urban problem. This is not the case. Rural and frontier homelessness is a pressing problem though it is one that looks different from urban homelessness.
The geographic isolation of some communities, the problem of substandard housing, and disparity in the level of resources and social services across rural areas make it difficult to get individuals and families experiencing homelessness in rural areas the supports they need to maintain stability.
These challenges and potential best practices to serve this population of Americans experiencing homelessness was the topic of an expert panel I moderated on April 11. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) hosted researchers, state government leaders, housing providers, innovative local program leaders, and federal partners to talk through the major issues faced for individuals and families facing homelessness in rural areas.
While there were many issues discussed at the panel, there are a few that I believe are key to understanding the problem of rural and frontier homelessness:
- Substandard housing is a large problem. For many families experiencing or at-risk of homelessness, they are living in housing that is of very poor quality or doubled up. If every individual home were inspected today, using HUD’s Housing Quality Standards, much of the housing stock would have to be demolished. This is not an issue of houses that need a few repairs. Greater investment in both increasing the amount of housing stock available for this population and maintaining current stock is critical.
- Some areas of rural and frontier America have a greater number of social service providers and supports than others. The ability to serve individuals and families in need is often constrained by the large distances between cities and towns in rural areas, and funding outside of major cities and metropolitan areas is more limited than other areas. This lack of funding and service providers in some areas contributes to the shortage of housing, emergency shelter, health care, and access to income supports
- Cultural competency is key. Reaching remote areas to share best practices may be difficult. Rural communities may be more removed from the federal and state government systems that deliver social services and supports such as physical and behavioral health care, mainstream supports, and housing options. Also, some rural or frontier populations may not want to accept help from the government for a myriad of reasons—assisting individuals and families out of homelessness may have to employ innovative methods. Disseminating information about what supports from the government and the nonprofit sector are available is an important step in connecting people to resources. There are many remote areas of the country that are not reliably connected to the internet where much of this information is housed and cell phone coverage is also often lacking. If we as government leaders and service providers can bridge the digital divide we have a better chance of making progress.
This Expert Panel also brought together service providers and state leaders that are successfully working to solve the problem of homelessness in rural areas. Innovative local efforts in Missoula, Montana and Clallum County, Washington are working to increase housing options and social service connections for some of the hardest-to-reach individuals in need. Leaders in Kentucky and in Fort Drum, New York have been able to effectively partner with federal agencies to build housing and connect individuals to VA-funded programs.
This panel was the beginning of a conversation that USICH and our federal partners hope to continue throughout the year—this issue is one that must be brought to light on a larger stage in order to achieve the goals of Opening Doors for all Americans. Stay tuned for more information about the results and discussion of this panel from SAMHSA in a fact sheet and compendium from panelists in the coming months.