Homelessness Is Not Just an Urban Concern

by Jimmy Heath

    Many people associate the problems of homelessness and poverty with big city life -soup kitchens and shelters, homeless people begging for change or pushing a shopping cart on downtown sidewalks, people sleeping on park benches or huddled in doorways –these are the visible city-bound stereotypes that everyone is familiar with. Most people are aware of the homeless problem in this country only because of these observable examples on our downtown city streets. However, the problems of homelessness and poverty-related issues also exist out of the sight in this country’s poor and rural areas. Millions of persons, including families, find themselves in desperate situations in America’s small towns and rural areas.

    The Center for Community Change, a Washington based community-grassroots development organization, reports that poverty is actually more prevalent in rural areas. Rural areas have lower incomes, lower employment levels and somewhat higher poverty levels and somewhat than metropolitan areas.

    Understanding rural homelessness requires a more flexible definition of homelessness. According to information from the National Coalition for the Homeless, “there are far fewer shelters in rural areas; therefore, people experiencing homelessness are more likely to live in a car or camper, or with relatives in overcrowded or substandard housing. Restricting definitions of homelessness to include only those who are literally homeless – that is, on the streets or in the shelters – does not fit well with the rural reality…”

    A lack of resources, a shortage of jobs and affordable housing in America’s heartland, paint a grave picture of 20th century life for the rural homeless. The problems for the rural homeless are further compounded by isolation. Families and individuals seeking help must travel, sometimes with great difficulty, to urban areas when seeking help, whether for jobs, housing or public assistance. For example, opportunities for employment for rural families is affected by the recent phenomena of business clustering, where industries and suppliers locate in strategic groupings adjacent to one another. These groupings are often located in the same city or region, near urban airports and infrastructures. These businesses rarely locate in isolated rural areas creating a vacuum of opportunities for poor families. Families on the move, looking for greener pastures, are America’s homeless nomads.

    “One of the other problems of the rural homeless are that programs designed to alleviate homelessness are targeted to urban areas and basically ignore the same conditions in rural America, resulting in a woeful lack of funding resources for rural communities,” says Donald Whitehead, director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. “One of the solutions is to get more of the rural communities involved in the HUD Continuum of Care application and funding process. The Coalition for Housing and Homelessness in Ohio (COHHIO) is one of many organizations working to bring more of these rural communities into the process.” The HUD Continuum of Care program targets federal funding dollars to homeless programs.

    Efforts to end rural homelessness, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless are complicated by isolation, lack of awareness and lack of resources. Helpful initiatives would include broadening the definition of homelessness to include those in temporary and/or dilapidated facilities, increasing outreach to isolated areas and increasing networking and awareness on a national level. Ultimately, however, ending homelessness in rural areas requires jobs that pay a living wage, adequate income support for those who cannot work, affordable housing, access to health care and transportation.

Story from the Cincinnati Streetvibes newspaper

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #37, August-September 1999