Rural Areas Struggle with Poverty

            by Ivan Sheehan

          The streets and sidewalks of the modern metropolis are settings traditionally associated with homeless people. However, beyond the boundaries of the urban sprawl, there is an increasingly large homeless community that has seemingly eluded the public’s social consciousness.

            “The biggest difference between the homelessness in rural parts of the state compared to urban areas,” says Rick Taylor, managing director of the Coalition On Homelessness And Housing In Ohio, “is the simple fact that people don’t see it.”

            Individuals experiencing rural homelessness are subject to living situations far removed from their urban counterparts. Familiar images of homeless individuals living in the shadows of towering buildings, underneath bustling bridges, in crowded shelters or on the unforgiving concrete are replaced with decidedly less visible indicators of homelessness in the heartland of Ohio.

            The majority of rural homeless people find shelter in their automobiles, or seek refuge with friends or family. Many escape to public campsites or other remote areas to set up “camp.” The varied displacement, and relatively hidden whereabouts of rurally homeless people makes the task of identifying cases exceedingly difficult, and contributes to the public’s misconceptions.

            In the rural areas, “there is a perception that homelessness is not a problem – out of site out of mind,” notes Taylor.

            A community that does not recognize or acknowledge the existence of a problem is seldom inclined to address or remedy it. Subsequently, community resources in rural areas are not often utilized to aid the local homeless community. The result is a set of problems unique to rural homeless individuals. Limited access to basic needs services including financial assistance, shelter, food, public transportation and a smaller number of permanent supportive housing opportunities creates distinct challenges for many homeless in rural communities, according to Tom Albanese, program director for the Columbus Community Shelter Board. In addition to Columbus, Albanese has worked in Kent and Portage County.

            Similarly, the federal definition of homeless has proven a hindrance to accounting for and providing for the number of rural homeless people. Restricting the definition of homeless to literally refer to individuals living on the streets or in shelters severely distorts rural homeless population figures.

            “If someone is “doubled-up” [living with family or friends], they do not meet the federal definition of homeless,” says Taylor. “In rural parts of the state, the majority of persons experiencing homelessness fall into this category.”

            Research conducted comparing the number of reported rural homeless people versus the urban homeless population is frequently flawed. Population statistics are gathered primarily from homeless shelters and service providers, which are very limited or non-existent in rural areas. The failure to account for those rural homeless people living outside shelters, and those who do not report to service providers leads to inaccurate population figures.

            Funding issues in rural areas are further complicated due to recent decreases in funding to support housing programs that serve the lowest income populations, according to Leslie Strauss, communications director for the Housing Assistance Council in Washington D.C.

            “For example, USDA’s Section 515 program, which supports the development of affordable rental housing, has been cut so severely that few new units are being constructed [nationally],” says Strauss.

            In addition, the continuation of the USDA’s rural Rental Assistance program and HUD’s Section 8 program, which both assist low-income individuals make annual rent payments, is being questioned as costs related to the programs continue to increase with the steady rise in housing costs.

            The demographic makeup of the rural homeless population, and the economic factors that affect the rural communities also frequently differ from that of those in urban environments.

            “Rural communities tend to experience greater rates of homelessness amongst families,” says Alabanese, who often assists with outreach efforts in Portage County. “Also, in my experience many single adults who were experiencing homelessness often gravitated towards Akron where there were more housing and employment opportunities, as well as emergency shelter options.”

            The 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, which was conducted by the Federal Interagency Council on Homelessness, uncovered several key difference between urban and rural homeless populations. It found that those experiencing rural homelessness have lower educational levels (more than twice as likely to be high school drop outs), more likely to be employed (usually at temporary jobs with no benefits), experience shorter and fewer periods of homelessness in their lifetimes and are two to four times as likely to live temporarily with family or friends in private homes.

            The survey also found families, women and children comprise a greater percentage of those utilizing services then those in urban areas, and rural homeless tend to be older than those in urban areas. In addition, respondents were six times more likely to have an alcohol-only related problem yet less likely to report having a mental health or drug problem. However, significant differences relate to the typical rural-based economy.

            The industries in a rural region are an integral part of the area’s economy. Rural regions whose economy relies on the success of agriculture or other industries in decline such as timber, mining or fishing are particularly susceptible to rural homelessness, according to the Coalition On Homelessness And Housing In Ohio. Reliance on such industries may be particularly devastating to a region if the largest employer in the area closes. It will affect the entire economic dynamic of the community, thus creating mass unemployment and a heightened potential for homelessness.

            Common public opinion holds that rural residents face lower housing costs, and therefore should have fewer difficulties affording adequate housing. According to the Housing Assistance Council, this is not true, and approximately 25 percent of all rural households are considered cost burdened – they pay more than the 30 percent of their income on housing. As the cost of housing continues to increase faster then personal incomes, and the unemployment rate continues to remain steady (the national rate was 5.4 percent in November 2004), the number of rural homeless is expected to increase.

            “The number of persons experiencing homelessness in rural parts of the state seem to be increasing by all accounts,” says Taylor. “Unfortunately, this is likely to continue.”

Copyright NEOCH, The Homeless Grapevine #68, February 2005. All rights reserved.