Since the late 1970s when large numbers of homeless people began appearing on city streets, homelessness has been regarded by the public as primarily an urban phenomenon. Although advocates and providers in rural areas were also seeing increasing numbers of people without housing, prompting speculation about the existence of the hidden homeless in rural communities (Post, 2002), very few researchers addressed issues related to rural homelessness. This dearth of scholarly literature was deemed of sufficient concern to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) Committee on Health Care for Homeless People in preparing its comprehensive report on Homelessness, Health, and Human Needs (1988) that a special study of rural homelessness was commissioned (Patton, 1988). In 1991, the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) published Rural Homelessness: A Review of the Literature, summarizing the various studies documenting rural homelessness (Housing Assistance Council, 1991). By 1995, rural homelessness was a visible issue warranting focus from the U.S. Department of Agricultures Rural Economic and Community Development (RECD) and the Federal Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH), which held a series of regional conferences with providers and advocates (Burt, 1996). A decade following the IOM report, the federal government convened the 1998 National Symposium on Homelessness Research to present papers on the state of the art of homelessness research, published as Practical Lessons (Fosburg & Dennis, 1999). However, although Rosenheck, Bassuk, and Salomon (1999) identified rural homelessness as contributing to the diversity of American homelessness, they did not discuss the topic as a phenomenon needing specific enquiry or presenting unique characteristics and challenges for service providers. Since the 1998 Symposium, most of the additional research conducted to address homelessness policy and practice has continued to focus on urban settings, with the result that rural homelessness remains much less well understood.
There are three main reasons for examining what is known about rural homelessness. The first is to document the prevalence of the problem. The second is to examine whether rural homelessness can be differentiated from urban homelessness as well as to identify differences in how persons who are homeless are served in rural communities. The third is to identify the gaps in current knowledge and recommend areas critical to new research. This paper addresses these issues, synthesizing research conducted over the past 25 years. Because little research has been done on rural homelessness, the literature reviewed was expanded beyond peer-reviewed journals to include government publications, technical assistance documents, and program materials encompassing rural homelessness and related topics (i.e., sources covering homelessness in general, rural poverty, rural health, rural mental health and substance abuse, as well as various data sources). In a further effort to fill gaps in the literature, a number of telephone interviews were conducted with service providers to inform the services component of the paper. In addition, this paper draws on an expert panel comprising researchers, service providers, government officials, and advocates convened in October 2006 to discuss cutting-edge issues in rural homelessness and to identify areas for future enquiry.