The number of people overall experiencing homelessness in the U.S. rose by less than 1% from 2020 to 2022, but those in rural Continuums of Care, local planning bodies responsible for coordinating the full range of homelessness services in a geographic area, which may cover a city, county, metropolitan area, or an entire state, saw an increase of nearly 6%, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Homelessness decreased for some groups, including veterans, families with children, and unaccompanied youth, according to the annual Point-in-Time count. Black and Indigenous people continue to be overrepresented among those experiencing homelessness.
Experts in the field say the reasons for the increase in rural Continuums of Care are multifaceted.
“Every community is different. The housing markets are different, the access to health care and behavioral health services are different. Wages as compared to housing are different. So it’s likely that if you go to one rural part of the country, there might be one story to tell about the loss of economic opportunity and jobs to pay a livable wage. In another area, maybe there’s a dramatic increase in the cost of housing,” Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told the Daily Yonder.
He said housing is simply not affordable to people.
“So I think we often see regional differences,” he said. “And this is true in urban and rural areas and tribal areas as well, where one area, the numbers might be increasing in one part of the country, and in another part, they might be decreasing. So first of all, I think it’s important to look at some of those geographical variations and some of the factors that are unique to a particular locality.”
Steve Berg, chief policy officer at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said rural homelessness is distinct from homelessness in other regions, and it’s imperative to have systems in place to respond to those unique needs.
“For example, outreach providers often have to canvas much larger geographic territories, and people will sometimes live in more remote areas where it is more difficult to identify and serve them,” he told the Daily Yonder. “It’s also important to know that wages tend to be lower in rural areas and the total inventory of housing also tends to be limited. Even in a region with lower rental prices, this creates enormous strain on people’s abilities to stay in their homes.”
Berg added that there may be more pressure on the rural housing markets in recent years as people have moved out of the cities and into exburbs and rural areas.
“That will affect people with the lowest incomes most directly,” he said.
In terms of what factors affect homelessness in rural areas, Olivet said a lack of housing stock is causing issues.
“In a lot of rural parts of the country that I’ve been to, there is just simply not enough housing and not enough housing for extremely low income people,” he said. “People end up doubled up with friends and family or they end up living in their vehicle, or sometimes even just leaving the area because there’s no place to live. So I think the lack of housing stock, and particularly the lack of affordable housing stock for extremely low income renters, is particularly acute in rural areas.”
Berg also said housing was a factor as well as factors associated with a social safety net.
“For example, people in regions that have foregone Medicaid expansion may face not only higher costs and lower access to healthcare but also fewer Medicaid-funded programs that could broadly benefit their well-being and economic security,” he said. “It’s also important to recognize that the homeless system may have much less infrastructure in a rural area, with little shelter, and any rehousing programs may be run by a multipurpose human services agency rather than a dedicated homeless response system.”
Olivet also said transportation barriers can also be a factor in rural areas. He said he’s worked in areas like western Massachusetts or rural Pennsylvania, places that people don’t always think of when they think of vast rural areas like Appalachia or in the West.
“But even in those kind of smaller geographies in the northeast, a transportation barrier of 10 miles, 20 miles to get from a place that’s affordable to live to a job that pays a living wage, if you don’t have a vehicle, there’s just not the public transportation infrastructure, or any way to get there,” he said. “And so even a 10 or 20 mile distance can be a huge barrier. That could mean the difference between a job and no job for somebody.”