When you ask people to describe homelessness, they will mention the obvious and visible forms that occur more often in urban areas: people sleeping on the streets, cardboard signs asking for help, shopping carts filled with personal belongings. In rural areas, homelessness doesn’t always take such obvious forms and those who suffer from it can fly under the radar. Challenges like these makes crafting a solution all the more difficult.
To be clear, the homelessness mentioned above does occur in rural areas, but to a far less degree due to the nature and geography of rural places. There is a higher concentration of people couch surfing with friends and family members for short periods of time and even some people who choose to live in tents or other shelters in the woods. People in rural areas are also more likely to take up residence in housing that would be condemned if they were within a city limit that enforced codes. Even though many who experience rural homelessness may have a roof above their head, they still suffer the effects of homelessness and are in need of safe, secure, and consistent housing.
Lynne Bouknight of Virginia was effectively homeless despite owning a home that had been in her family for generations. Her disability prevented her from affording or making repairs to the home. Only one room was considered habitable and with the lack of a working pump for her water well, Lynne had no access to running water or indoor plumbing. When it got too cold or the lack of water was too much to handle, Lynne would sleep on couches in the area, sometimes in unsafe conditions. Fortunately for Lynne, she discovered Fahe Member Helping Overcome Poverty’s Existence (HOPE) and was able to find funding which enabled the construction of a new home.
More homeless people in rural areas could receive help if there was a more effective and reliable way to conduct a count of the population. However, one of the primary methods of calculating the homeless population is point-in-time counts that are conducted on the streets or in homeless shelters. Because of the lack of shelters and the nature of rural homelessness these numbers are underestimated which in turn limits the amount of funding that is made available for services. Even with the passing of the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act that expanded the definition of a homeless individual to include those at imminent risk of homelessness, the ability to get an accurate count is still daunting. Along with lack of outreach services, people are also ashamed of their situation and choose not to come forward to receive help.
So what can be done?
Homelessness is not an easy problem to tackle though many are working to find a way. Many Fahe Members offer services to their local communities in the forms of housing vouchers and transitional housing. Just the nature of affordable housing itself offers a form of prevention towards homelessness. The availability of more affordable housing in rural areas, both single family homes, transitional homes, and apartments give people options to save money so they won’t be forced to choose between housing and other essentials such as food or medicine. Homebuilders can even make a difference by reaching out to existing homeowners to provide repair work which can save families from living in poor conditions or being forced to become transient.
Even the good work being done in affordable housing by the Fahe Network and other stakeholders in the region won’t be enough to fix the problem alone. Until we develop better methods of outreach and better methods of exacting a more accurate count, the true numbers of rural homeless will remain out of sight and possibly out of reach of assistance.