Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Rural Homelessness. Causes of Rural Homelessness


Homelessness among adults and families is not evenly distributed across rural areas (Aron, 2004; Post, 2002), but rather is concentrated in communities that have histories of persistent poverty; are primarily agricultural or have economies based on declining mining, forestry, or fishing industries; have reduced employment opportunities due to changing economies (e.g., due to the replacement of family farms with mechanized or corporate farms); or are economic growth areas that attract both more job seekers than can be absorbed and relatively high-income residents whose presence increases housing costs and other living expenses. In his report for the Institute of Medicine on rural homelessness, Patton (1988) wrote that like urban homelessness in the United States, rural homelessness is fundamentally due to the interaction of structural and personal factors. However, some of the structural factors for current rural homelessness have different historic roots than those for urban homelessness, stemming from the rural economic restructuring of the early 1980s that included twin recessions, massive farm foreclosures, and loss of labor-intensive rural manufacturing to foreign competition. The impact of the rural economic crisis was uneven and had the most devastating impact on counties that lacked economic diversification (i.e., in which local economy was dominated by a single industry) and on counties where rural poverty has historically been entrenched, such as the southeastern states. Patton (1988) wrote that of 231 counties that ranked in the bottom fifth for income over the previous 30 years, all but 18 were in the southeastern United States. He emphasized the concept of relative burden, by which he meant that relatively low numbers of homeless persons can easily overwhelm a rural communitys resources.

Today, structural factors that continue to contribute to rural homelessness include inadequate housing quality, declines in homeownership, rising rent burdens, and insecure tenancy resulting from changes in local real estate markets. Related factors include lack of infrastructure to support employment, such as child care and public transportation, and long distances between low-cost housing and employment opportunities. Inadequate treatment opportunities for disabling medical and behavioral health problems, including serious mental health and substance use problems, also contribute to vulnerability to homelessness in rural areas (Center for Family and Community Life, 2005; National Coalition for the Homeless, 2006b). On occasion, natural disasters (such as Hurricane Katrina) contribute to homelessness in rural areas through displacement of formerly housed persons. In addition, local and statewide studies report domestic violence as a major contributor to homelessness of women (Intergovernmental Human Services Bureau, 2003; Kentucky Housing Corporation, 1994; Montana Council on Homelessness, 2007), and unaccompanied youth (Wilder Research Center, 1998).

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