Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Rural Homelessness. Enumeration of Rural Homeless People


Problems defining, locating, and sampling have made enumerating the homeless population virtually impossible (Cowan et al., 1988). In urban areas, estimates have commonly relied on counts of persons using services. However, by this measure, homeless persons in rural areas are likely substantially undercounted due to the lack of rural service sites, the difficulty capturing persons who do not use homeless services, the limited number of researchers working in rural communities, and the minimal incentive for rural providers to collect data on their clients (Burt et al., 1999). As a consequence, the number of homeless persons counted in a given area tends to correlate with how vigilant the surveyors are in finding them (Aron & Fitchen, 1996; Hudson, 1998). For example, when a man well-known by local providers to be chronically homeless was asked why he had not been included in a local HUD point-in-time count, he replied that he wasnt a dog that, when called, would come out to be counted (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, 2006).

Most estimates of homelessness in rural areas have been extrapolated from rates reported in urban areas. For example, in 1987, as part of a study of eating patterns of homeless people in U.S. cities with populations of 100,000 or more, the Urban Institute collected data that researchers used to create one-day and one-week estimates of the numbers of homeless persons in central cities in the United States. Although no small city, suburban, or rural locations were included in the initial survey, these estimates were then extrapolated to the rest of the United States using assumptions about the ratio of homelessness rates in central cities compared to other areas of the country. This method produced a one-week estimate of 229,000 persons from shelters and meal programs in cities of over 100,000 and an extrapolation to the whole country of 500,000 to 600,000 people (Burt and Cohen, 1989).

The next national study of homelessness was mounted in 1996. The National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC) was a collaborative effort of 12 federal agencies, coordinated by the Interagency Council on Homelessness. Urban Institute researchers conducted an analysis of interviews with people sampled from shelters, meal programs, and other homeless service agencies in communities as well as from some generic housing, community action, and welfare agencies in communities with few or no dedicated homeless services. Data from this study were used to estimate that 444,000 to 842,000 persons were homeless in the United States on any given night (Burt et al., 2001).

After weighting their data to be nationally representative of homeless assistance programs during an average week and to prevent double counting, NSHAPC estimated that about 9 percent of its homeless sample was drawn from rural areas in the U.S. (Burt et al., 1999). However, since people were only counted if they were clients in a broad array of targeted homeless service programs, the sample and findings of the study may have underrepresented the rural homeless population, because not all people who are homeless in rural areas use homeless service programs, and dedicated homeless assistance programs tend not to exist in smaller rural or frontier communities.

Another national one-day estimate of homelessness derives from the efforts of local communities to obtain counts of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people as part of their applications for funding under HUDs Supportive Housing Program and other related homeless assistance funding streams. Beginning in 2005, when HUD began requiring methodologically defensible counts or no counts, HUD continuum-of-care applications included systematic counts, implemented with varied levels of rigorous methodology, from most communities in the country. The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) summed the reported counts from 2005 to create an updated base estimate of persons without housing in the U.S. From the 2005 counts from more than 450 communities, the National Alliance estimated that 744,313 Americans experienced homelessness on any given night in 2005 (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2007). Applying the NSHAPC rate of 9 percent to this most recent national estimate by the National Alliance suggests that at least 67,000 adults may have been homeless in rural areas of the U.S. on any given night in 2005.

Unfortunately, using urban rates to estimate the extent of rural homelessness may not provide an accurate count due to differences in population density and other factors. Although rural areas represent 75 percent of the countrys land mass, rural residents make up only 17 percent of the total population of the country (Johnson, 2006). While the absolute number of homeless persons in rural communities is smaller than that found in cities, the prevalence of homelessness (i.e., the number of homeless persons relative to the general population) has been estimated to be greater in some rural areas than in some major metropolitan areas (Kentucky Housing Corporation, 1994, 2002; Lawrence, 1995; Post, 2002). Furthermore, Burt (1999) cautioned that most studies that yield estimates of population size have methodological differences that make valid comparisons virtually impossible. One example of a survey that allows comparison, because it includes both rural and urban communities, is the statewide 1993 Kentucky Homeless survey, which found higher rates of homelessness in some rural communities compared to urban areas. The very rural Fleming and Lee counties had rates of 109 and 152 per 10,000 respectively while the most urban counties of Fayette and Jefferson had homeless rates of 32 and 17 per 10,000 (Kentucky Housing Corporation, 1994).

The numbers of homeless youth are not usually included in estimates of homeless populations in the United States. However, as part of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control in 1992 and 1993, Ringwalt and colleagues analyzed data for a national representative household sample of 6,496 youth ages 12 through 17 (Ringwalt et al., 1998). Using a broad definition of homelessness, the researchers reported that overall, 7.6 percent of the national sample had experienced homelessness in the previous year. Contrary to findings reported for adults, the prevalence of homelessness among youth did not vary significantly by race, family poverty, family structure, or region of the country. The annual rate of homelessness for youth in the previous 12 months was 8.4 percent in the rural (or non-metropolitan) areas compared to 8.3 percent in the Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) with central cities and 6.8 percent in MSAs without central cities. This finding suggests that homeless youth are a sizable and important subpopulation among homeless persons in both rural and urban areas. In contrast to homeless adults, whose homelessness is more often related to structural or economic factors, homeless youth in rural areas may become homeless due to conflict with parents or other household members, eviction, and other personal circumstances, as do homeless youth in urban areas (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2006a; Robertson & Toro, 1999; Wilder Research Center, 1998).

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