Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Rural Homelessness. Gaps in Current Research


The literature that constitutes this first generation of research on rural homelessness has broken difficult ground and laid a foundation for the next generation of studies. Nevertheless, limitations of this generations empirical work include problems with design, sampling, and instrumentation. Serious limitations of many studies in the existing literature include sampling from limited service sites; using idiosyncratic definitions of homelessness; collecting minimal information on smaller or more isolated rural or frontier areas; failing to collect data on household composition, which affects demand on social service systems; and lacking standardized instrumentation that would facilitate comparisons across studies and with normative populations.

Many of these studies relied on convenience samples collected from clients of homeless services in rural areas. These samples lacked comprehensive coverage of the target population by failing to include homeless persons who do not use services or who live in smaller or more remote rural or frontier areas where services are not available. The lack of comparison groups makes it difficult to identify factors that differentiate the rural homeless population from the rural low-income housed population. Simplistic divisions of samples into dichotomous rural/urban or trichotomous rural/urban/suburban categories potentially leave undiscovered important differences among these groups. Moreover, researchers often combined data from rural and mixed areas into a single category, potentially masking important differences by location and proximity to urban areas. Broad conclusions about rural homeless populations cannot be made without representative data (Strong et al., 2005).

In most studies, instrumentation did not adopt standardized questions about health status. Even the important study by Burt and colleagues (1999) used non-standardized assessments to measure alcohol, drug, and mental health problems. The lack of a core of common questions makes comparisons across studies difficult. There was minimal assessment of drug use in studies reviewed, despite reports by providers that drug use is an increasingly urgent concern for rural communities. The lack of longitudinal designs leaves many questions unanswered about the patterns of homelessness experienced by these rural populations and their utilization of services over time.

The limited research available leaves many questions unanswered about the rural homeless population. As was true in initial studies of urban homeless populations, variations in research methodologies, particularly sampling and instrumentation, provided contradictory findings concerning important population characteristics. Given the current state of the research on rural homelessness, it is not possible to determine with certainty whether rural homelessness is distinct from urban homelessness in terms of sociodemographic or behavioral health profiles. For example, some findings have suggested that persons who are homeless in rural areas are more likely to be families, employed, and better educated than their urban counterparts. Studies as well as providers indicate that persons who are homeless in rural areas are more likely to be found in some type of substandard housing rather than to be literally homeless as is seen in urban settings. Nevertheless, whether or not future research identifies distinguishing characteristics between rural and urban homeless populations, it is abundantly apparent that the differences between rural and urban services infrastructures alone mandate that further research on the needs of rural homeless populations be pursued.

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