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


The lack of consensus on how to define rurality has impeded research into rural homelessness by making it difficult to specify the population studied in a consistent manner (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1997). To date, federal agencies and researchers have not settled on a single definition of rural but rather construct definitions specific to various uses. Moreover, the definitions have changed over the years to reflect demographic shifts as well as changing notions of urbanicity. While definitions adopted by various government agencies tend to overlap, there are important distinctions in the geographic areas delineated as rural, affecting population estimates, services eligibility, and the like.

Rurality is typically defined in contrast to urbanicity. The most commonly used definitions, such as those developed by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), are based on population density and proximity to metropolitan areas. For example, prior to 2003, OMB defined a metropolitan community as a population nucleus with a population of 50,000 or more and the economically tied surrounding area. Communities with more than 5,000 but fewer than 50,000 people were designated as urban clusters. Subsequently, OMB added micropolitan communities with a population of up to 10,000 plus surrounding county areas where at least 25 percent of the population commutes to the micropolitan center. All other (or rural) communities are considered non-core. The U.S. Bureau of the Census definition of urban includes urbanized areas consisting of one or more central places and adjacent territory with a population density of at least 1,000 per square mile that together have a minimum residential population of at least 50,000 people, and urban clusters of densely settled areas having at least 2,500 but fewer than 50,000 people. Rural areas constitute all territory, population and housing units not classified as urban (Coburn, 2007). Because urban and rural classifications crosscut other geographic hierarchies, rural pockets can be located in both metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas.

Within the continuum of communities defined as rural, frontier areas represent the extreme. Although not a Census classification, frontier areas are usually defined as having a very low population density, typically fewer than seven persons per square mile (Popper, 1986). Most frontier counties are found in western states and are characterized by peoples relative isolation and dispersion across large geographic areas. Frontier areas account for about 400 communities countrywide, which cover about 45 percent of the countrys land mass. It is important to define frontier areas because of their distinctive characteristics relative to other rural areas; for example, economic downturns start earlier and snowball faster in frontier communities because they are less complex and often rely on a single industry (e.g., tourism, ranching, farming, logging, or mineral extraction) (Ciarlo et al., 1996).

Although these various agency definitions have been used, for example, to document differences in drug use and health across categories of population and geographic location, it is important to note that these definitions were developed to provide nationally consistent standards for collecting federal statistics for geographic areas and not for inappropriate uses such as determining program eligibility of individual applicants (Standards for defining Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas, 2000). Nevertheless, these designations are frequently used to determine eligibility and distribute many types of federal funding  from homeland security to housing  in ways that exclude persons who are homeless in rural and frontier areas (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, 2006).

Equally important is how homelessness itself is defined in rural areas and how the unique circumstances of rural living affect the enumeration of people who are homeless in rural settings. The most widely used definition of homelessness for determining policy comes from the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (1987), which defines a homeless person as, (1) an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and (2) an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is  (A) a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill); (B) an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or (C) a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings. Structures commonly found in rural settings that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) calls substandard but stable housing do not meet criteria stipulated in Part C of the definition (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, 2006). Although persons living in housing that has been condemned can be defined as homeless by HUD, a formal and consistent condemnation process does not exist in most rural communities. This means that a structure considered not fit for human habitation in Washington, D.C., would not be designated as such in Viper, Kentucky (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, 2006). Consequently, undercounts of rural homeless people may result from exclusion of persons living in substandard structures  structures that in an urban setting would be condemned. To counteract this problem, some rural communities have worked with their local county governments to create a special designation for these properties in accord with the residence criteria stipulated in Part C of the homelessness definition. A few are now using the BOCA building code (Building Officials and Code Administrators International, 1996) definition of not fit for human habitation to distinguish persons who are homeless from those living in substandard housing.

The definition of a chronic homeless person as "any unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years, created by HUD, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA), and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) to determine eligibility under the consolidated plan (Consolidated Plan Revisions and Updates for Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2006), has been widely criticized for its exclusion of homeless families who have similar patterns of chronic homelessness (Child Welfare League of America et al., 2005). If families are a larger proportion of rural homeless populations than urban, use of this definition may also lead to disproportionate undercounts of chronic homelessness in rural relative to urban areas.

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