Although people commonly think of homelessness as an urban phenomenon, data from HUD’s 2017 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) indicates that nearly 75,000 people experiencing homelessness were in Balances of State or Statewide Continuums of Care, a rough proxy for estimating the scale of homelessness in rural areas.
Of that number, roughly one-third (24,386) were sleeping outdoors in places not meant for human habitation, such as on the streets, in vehicles, or in parks.
If you’re surprised to learn that unsheltered homelessness is so prevalent in rural areas, you aren’t alone. But there’s one more rural population that should also be taken into account.
A Focus on Youth
Recently, Chapin Hall’s Voices of Youth Count (VOYC) initiative released its brief on rural youth homelessness. Their research confirms that rates of homelessness for youth are the same in rural areas as they are in urban and suburban areas. It also finds that rural youth have even higher rates of unsheltered homelessness than those in non-rural communities (28 percent compared with 22 percent).
Given the many challenges of finding unsheltered people during PIT counts in rural areas, the techniques employed by VOYC may be helpful in improving the accuracy of rural unsheltered counts for all populations.
What We Know So Far
Thanks to the work of innovative rural, Balance of State, and statewide CoCs around the country, we know that there are some common practices that improve the ability of rural communities to address homelessness for all populations. Some of those emerging best practices were recently featured by our partners at the US Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), who convened rural homelessness systems leaders from around the country last fall. These include:
Improving Access to Services and Supports
Providers working to end homelessness can team up with with mainstream systems and non-traditional partners who are likely to have greater “coverage” in rural areas.
For example, fewer than 10 percent of counties nationwide have an emergency shelter for runaway or homeless minor youth funded by the Family & Youth Services Bureau (FYSB). But every county is part of the state or county child welfare system that is statutorily responsible for the safety and well-being of minors. Similarly, every county has a school system, and schools are where most young people under 18 spend most of their day. Partnering with schools to identify homeless and unstably housed youth and to connect them with additional resources is essential to address rural youth homelessness.
Enhancing Outreach and Engagement Practices
Expanding outreach is key to finding unsheltered young people and connecting them to housing and services. The rural communities convened by USICH provided one particularly interesting strategy: building partnerships with convenience stores! Convenience stores often serve as a grocery store, fueling station, and community hub in rural areas. People who work in them can be outreach sources who are regularly connecting to youth experiencing homelessness.
Leveraging Religious Congregations
Faith-based organizations can serve many instrumental roles in addressing rural youth homelessness: providing emergency shelter via congregation buildings or in the homes of congregation members, creating supportive and mentoring relationships between rural youth and congregation members, or providing flexible funding to fill the gaps in assistance that the homelessness system cannot.
Because of the relatively smaller number of youth in rural communities, it is a challenge to create efficient youth-exclusive programming or systems. However, since rural resources are often sited within a single agency with broad geographic coverage (like a Community Action Agency), the best solution is to ensure that existing homelessness and social services resources are better able to provide youth-aware services. This way, any age-based needs or circumstances can be effectively addressed within the existing system.
We are starting to see these smart approaches to rural youth homelessness being implemented by innovative rural Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP) communities like Northwest Michigan. The leaders of the YHDP work in that community are “adult” providers who are learning how to make their own programs more responsive to youth, and other rural communities will be able to follow their example!
We are constantly expanding our understanding of the strategies to overcome youth homelessness. Important initiatives like the Voices of Youth count are yielding vitally important data. Meanwhile, rural communities continue to innovate and tailor their systemic response to homelessness for their unique geographies.
And as this knowledge-base grows, it’s becoming more and more clear: Ending rural youth homelessness is TOTALLY possible!