Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Rural Homelessness. Best and Promising Practices


The literature on best practice models for services for people who are homeless focuses primarily on urban models, providing no comparative findings on the use of the same models in rural communities or on homeless service program models developed specifically for rural areas. Two reports produced by the HAC address related best practices for rural areas. Continua of Care Best Practices: Comprehensive Homeless Planning in Rural America, provides case studies of four rural communities that have successfully created and maintained rural systems and homeless shelter and service projects (Housing Assistance Council, 2002). Data were collected from site visits, interviews, and examination of the 1999 continuum of care applications. Based on analyses of these data, researchers identified four common themes across these successful programs: leadership, inclusive process, planning, and support networks.

Best Practices in Revolving Loan Funds for Rural Affordable Housing (Housing Assistance Council, 2003a), analyzes four case studies of rural revolving loan funds, identifies similarities and differences, and provides specific advice for those seeking to establish such funds. Researchers sought to ascertain which best practices are most salient in different rural contexts. The study recognized that what works best in one rural community may not be appropriate in another, thus calling for careful examination of the impact of the social and economic context of community lending practices.

Despite scant research, there is some evidence pointing to models emerging as promising practices. These include regionalized services, development of community collaboration and coalitions, rural service teams, the housing-plus-services model, and employment initiatives. For example, a HUD continuum of care initiated by 50 service providers in a 23-county rural region of western Tennessee in 2004 brings in $1 million annually for services that help support 600 units of housing built using a combination of HUD and private funding (Rozann Downing, personal communication, 2007).

One of the greatest assets in rural communities is the ability  or necessity  to collaborate in the provision of housing and services due to limited resources. In fact, the need to provide services to clients with complex needs drives the organization to create interconnections to a set of other service providers (Goodfellow, 1999). This decreases cost, increases community building, and reduces duplication in service delivery. While limited resources in rural communities mean that proportionately more resources and funding sources are needed to create programs than in urban communities, once this is accomplished, the rural programs are more stable due to diversity of funding and other resources (Housing Assistance Council, 2006). This necessity also resulted in rural communities being the first to make full use of mainstream resources to serve homeless people (Burt, 1996). The work of Hazard Perry County Community Ministries in Southeastern Kentucky, in the Appalachian foothills, exemplifies some of the unique strengths found in rural communities attempting to address the issue of homelessness. The success of this agencys program models is attributed to using lay workers who know the community and understand the people they are serving, being creative in interpreting the regulations of mainstream programs so that people in need can be served, and maintaining an organizational culture that doesnt give up on people (Gerry Roll and Jennifer Weeber, personal communication, 2006). Rural citizens are more likely to have lifelong relationships with their service providers and other members of the community, creating strong community bonds, trust in service providers, and the desire to help one another. (Burt, 1996). This makes it possible to address the needs of persons in need more quickly and increases the likelihood of long-term success (Housing Assistance Council, 2006).

Rural service teams from across various agencies and organizations support the families and single adults in the previously mentioned Supportive Housing and Managed Care Pilot in Blue Earth County, Minnesota. A challenge faced by rural teams is having fewer disciplines represented, because teams are smaller on smaller-scale projects. This also means that cost efficiencies are fewer. An advantage for rural teams, however, is less bureaucracy to get in the way of linking people to the community services and supports they need (Jennifer Ho, personal communication, 2007). The pilot model, which demonstrated success in both rural and urban areas, was expanded in summer 2006 into the seven counties of rural northeastern Minnesota, including three Indian reservations, as well as into some southern Minnesota counties and the metropolitan area of MinneapolisSt. Paul.

Both the Tennessee and Minnesota initiatives described here are permanent supported housing models. Support services, whether offered by providers located on site or off site, are a critical component of the response to homelessness in both rural and urban areas. The smaller population in rural areas usually means fewer units in a project, with projects farther apart than their urban counterparts. The Millennium Center in Cuthbert, Georgia, consisting of 20 freestanding residences for homeless and near-homeless families with alcohol and/or drug addiction issues, offers a full spectrum of supports. There is a child care center and a satellite of Albany Technical College on site as well as treatment services for the whole family. About 60 percent of the 80 families who have lived at the Center since it opened in 2003 have adult family members who have gotten sober, secured educational services and a job, and moved on to permanent housing. Cuthbert is in the heart of a seven-county area of very rural Georgia with a total population of 38,000.

Employment demonstration projects in rural areas of Illinois, Nebraska, and Tennessee offer findings and lessons learned similar to other efforts that target rural poverty. Lack of transportation makes it difficult for low-income participants to access jobs and other services. Jobs are scarce and low paying, often providing less than full-time work. Partnering among local organizations is critical to client success, as is having program staff members who are familiar with the rural communities they serve and who can work independently. Outreach services are essential in covering rural areas with large territories (Burwick, Jethwani, & Meckstroth, 2004). Employment opportunities are available to participants in a unique transitional living program operated by Good Works, Inc., in the Appalachian area of southern Ohio. Most residents are offered work in two agency-owned businesses, a gift shop and a bed and breakfast. Residents are linked with volunteer live-in mentors who are available for personal support, modeling the development of healthy relationships, and helping residents develop and carry out plans for future stability (Wasserman, 2006).

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