By Jill Penley
Homelessness is often considered an urban phenomenon. But those who work on homeless issues in Tennessee, say rural homelessness is a growing problem, too. Higher poverty rates, inadequate transportation, and limited access to shelters and services like health, mental health, and childcare, make people and families who live in rural areas particularly vulnerable.
Polly Ruddick, who runs the office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention in Lexington, Ky., has worked for years on homeless advocacy in rural eastern Kentucky. She says that many elected officials in rural areas are not aware there are homeless people in their communities.
“I had mayors, and I had judge executives say right to my face, ‘My community does not have homeless people.’ “ said Ruddick. “And my response was, ‘Yes, you do. You just either choose to ignore it, or you really don’t see it.”
“Support for the homeless in small communities is sometimes provided by churches,” she says. “But they often lack the money and manpower to create a solution equal to the problem.”
Ruddick says even counting the rural homeless is challenging, “especially if there isn’t a community shelter or established outreach system.”
David Lipsetz, CEO of the Housing Assistance Council, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, says most data on the homeless population in the United States is based on “point in time” counts. That means that most local agencies serving the homeless conduct a count of homeless people in their communities during the last ten days
in January when the weather turns cold, and people are most likely to seek shelter.
Vast rural spaces and the lack of shelter systems in rural areas makes such a count “largely inaccurate” in rural areas, he says. There needs to be a better model, he says, adding that the Department for Housing and Urban evelopment’s annual assessment of homelessness did not even include a rural designation in its data collection until recently.These point-in-time counts determine how federal funding from multiple agencies is allotted to communities, he says, leaving rural counties at a disadvantage.
“The national conversation about housing is almost always based on a number of very large cities with housing pressures,” he says. That leaves the pressures of supply and demand for affordable housing in rural areas often unexplored.
And in many rural places around the country, the ongoing addiction epidemic strains the social safety net, which advocates say puts more rural people at risk of becoming homeless. But the scattered and hidden nature of homelessness in rural places makes it an especially hard problem to measure and address.
Compounding the problems of rural poverty, is the ongoing addiction crisis driving more people to homelessness, says Trish Burchett, Executive Director, ACTION Coalition. ”A decade ago, if we encountered someone needing a place to sleep, we would be able to find somebody who would take them in,” said Burchett. “That’s not the case anymore. This is a horrible issue for our community and one that for sure impedes the recovery process for those seeking help.”