Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Rural Homelessness. Sociodemographic Characteristics

09/01/2007

In most state and local studies, the majority of rural homeless adults are single males (Aron, 2004; Center for Family and Community Life, 2005; Montana Council on Homelessness, 2007; Patton, 1988; Vernez et al., 1988). More than three-quarters of the national NSHAPC rural sample were men (77 percent) (Burt et al., 1999). Similarly, males constituted a higher majority of rural homeless adults in California than of urban homeless adults (Vernez et al., 1988). Non-urban homeless adults in the Ohio study were also mostly male, although the non-urban counties had twice as many women as men (Roth et al., 1985; Roth & Bean, 1986). In Montana, virtually equivalent numbers of males and females were surveyed. In contrast, in the statewide survey in Kentucky the majority of rural homeless adults were women (62 percent) whereas urban homeless adults were mostly male (68 percent) (Kentucky Housing Corporation, 1994). In a follow-up to an earlier survey of key informants, which reported a preponderance of homeless men (Vermont Department of Social Welfare, 1985), the number of homeless women in Vermont was estimated to be increasing (Vermont Department of Social Welfare, 1987).

Most studies report that the majority of rural homeless adults are non-Hispanic whites (Aron, 2004; Center for Family and Community Life, 2005; Montana Council on Homelessness, 2007; Patton, 1988; Vernez et al., 1988). For example, homeless adults in the non-urban counties in Ohio were mostly white (Roth et al., 1985; Roth & Bean, 1986) as were homeless adults in rural California (Vernez et al., 1988). On a national level, NSHAPC (Burt et al., 1999) reported that persons without housing in rural areas compared to those in urban areas were more likely to be white. Among homeless youth in non-metropolitan Minnesota, however, racial and ethnic minorities were vastly overrepresented, with 53 percent being African American, American Indian, Hispanic, Asian, or mixed race compared to 18 percent of all Minnesota youth. However, racial and ethnic minorities were even higher among metropolitan homeless youth (80 percent) (Wilder Research Center, 2007a, b). Similarly, in Montana, American Indians were disproportionately represented among homeless persons surveyed, especially among women. American Indians represented 20 percent of all persons identified as homeless, which was 3.2 times higher than reported in the 2000 Montana Census of the general population. Two-thirds of all homeless women were American Indian, while less than 40 percent of homeless men were American Indians. Other minority groups were also overrepresented, constituting 4 percent of persons identified in the 2006 survey compared to 2 percent of the general Montana population (Montana Council on Homelessness, 2007).

Most reports indicate that people who are homeless in rural areas are somewhat younger than those in urban areas. For example, in Ohio, persons sampled in the non-urban counties were slightly younger (ages ranged from 16 to 83) (Roth et al., 1985; Roth & Bean, 1986) than in the urban areas. The estimated average age of homeless people in the Vermont statewide survey was in the early 30s; persons under 18 years of age were estimated to comprise 15 percent of the total, and 8 percent were over 60 (Vermont Department of Social Welfare, 1987). In California, rural homeless adults were more likely to be under age 35 than were those surveyed in urban counties (Vernez et al., 1988). However, in the NSHAPC, rural homeless people were older than homeless adults in urban and suburban areas, with most between the ages of 35 to 44 (Burt et al., 1999).

Nationally, single adults represent the largest portion of the homeless population, and single women with children comprise the great majority of homeless families (Burt et al., 1999). The composition of rural homeless populations is similar: in the NSHAPC national survey, most rural respondents were single adults (84 percent), consisting of 77 percent single men and 7 percent single women (Burt et al., 1999). In rural Vermont, the homeless population was estimated to include 80 percent single adults, the majority of whom were male (70 percent), but with an increasing number of families (Vermont Department of Social Welfare, 1985; 1987). In contrast, in the statewide survey of 2,311 homeless persons in Montana (Montana Council on Homelessness, 2007), all of whom were considered to be rural for the purposes of this report, virtually equal numbers of males and females were identified, with 36 percent of the sample being families with children. Twenty-three percent of the NSHAPC rural sample were women, and most of these (74 percent, or 17 percent of sample) had one or more children with them (Burt et al., 1999). Among non-metro homeless adults in Minnesota, 26 percent were single women with children, 7 percent were couples with children, and 1 percent was single men with children; among metro homeless adults, 23 percent were single women with children, 3 percent were couples with children, and 1 percent was single men with children (Wilder Research Center, 2007a, b). In contrast, in California, none of the homeless adults sampled in non-urban counties had children with them (Vernez et al., 1988). Homeless people surveyed in Ohio non-urban counties were more likely to be married or living with a partner than in urban areas (Roth et al., 1985; Roth & Bean, 1986).

There is some evidence that rural homeless adults are less educated than their urban counterparts. For example, NSHAPC (Burt et al., 1999) reported that persons without housing in rural areas compared to those in urban areas were less likely to have completed high school. However, no differences by educational attainment between rural and urban samples were found in the Ohio study (Roth et al., 1985; Roth & Bean, 1986). In Montana, two-thirds of the rural sample had completed high school or better (66 percent) (Montana Council on Homelessness, 2007).

Studies indicate that rural homeless adults tend to have higher employment rates than their urban peers, but more of them are underemployed. For example, the NSHAPC rural sample was more likely to be working (65 percent)  although often underemployed and in the informal labor market  and less likely to be receiving any means-tested government benefits compared with the urban sample (Burt et al., 1999). Similarly, in the Ohio study, the non-urban sample had more resources and were more likely to be currently employed (35 percent vs. 22 percent urban), but they were less likely to receive welfare benefits or to use meal programs or shelters than the urban sample (Roth et al., 1985; Roth & Bean, 1986). In Montana, 28 percent of homeless adults with a high school education or less were working full- or part-time (Montana Council on Homelessness, 2007).

The experience and trajectory of homelessness among rural settings and rural subgroups is not well documented. For example, non-urban and urban adults in Ohio were equally likely to have been homeless less than one year (median 60-days homeless overall). In Montana, families with children tended to be homeless for shorter periods of time than others in the sample (i.e., 63 percent had been homeless less than 6 months compared to 52 percent of others) (Montana Council on Homelessness, 2007). Only about 5 percent of the sample had been chronically homeless (i.e., for 12 months or longer), and more than half of these had been homeless for more than two years. In the Minnesota study, non-metro homeless adults were less likely to have histories of chronic homelessness (47 percent non-metro vs. 57 percent metro) (Wilder Research Center, 2007a, b).

In Ohio, non-urban respondents were only one-third as likely to have spent the previous night in a shelter as the urban sample; no one in the purely rural counties had stayed in a shelter. By contrast, the non-urban sample was more likely to have stayed with friends or family than the urban sample (Roth et al., 1985; Roth & Bean, 1986). Rural adults in California were more likely than urban adults to have been recruited from the streets than from a shelter (Vernez et al., 1988). In Montana, respondents spent the previous night with family or friends (22 percent), outside (20 percent), in an emergency shelter (18 percent), or in transitional housing such as domestic violence shelters (16 percent) (Montana Council on Homelessness, 2007). One fourth of families with children reported staying in transitional housing facilities. Chronically homeless persons most commonly spent the night outside, in emergency shelters, or in a motel.

In the NSHAPC study, non-urban adults were more likely to have ever been incarcerated than those in urban settings (Burt et al., 1999). In contrast, non-urban adults in Ohio included slightly fewer veterans and ex-offenders (Roth et al., 1985; Roth & Bean, 1986). The Montana study reported that most women in prison in Montana have committed drug-related offenses, usually involving methamphetamine, that range from possession or manufacturing of drugs to committing crimes to get money for drugs (Montana Council on Homelessness, 2007).

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