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


Relatively little research has focused specifically on rural homelessness, with extant studies based mainly upon descriptive surveys of clients (demographic and social characteristics) or service providers. Interviews of service providers or clients typically used convenience samples, and anecdotal comments or informal observations were often reported as though they had the weight of more controlled empirical findings. Much of the research is dated, with the first statewide studies of rural homelessness conducted in the mid-1980s. The Ohio Mental Health Study (Roth et al., 1985; Roth & Bean, 1986) was an ambitious project that initiated survey data collection in 1983. Researchers conducted a representative survey with 790 urban and 189 non-urban homeless people statewide: the urban sample comprised 81 percent of the respondents while the non-urban sample included respondents from both the mixed/urban (10 percent) and rural (9 percent) counties. Homelessness was defined broadly to include literally homeless adults (i.e., staying on the streets or in shelters) as well as residents of cheap hotels and motels and persons who were doubled up. In 1985, the Vermont Department of Social Welfare conducted a survey of district directors of state social welfare offices and other key informants to determine the number of homeless people in their areas, the dynamics of the problem, and service issues (Housing Assistance Council, 1991; Vermont Department of Social Welfare, 1985). A total of 2,800 persons were estimated to need shelter during 1984. In 1987, the California State Department of Mental Health conducted an enumeration and representative survey of homeless adults in three California counties, including one rural (Yolo) and two urban counties (Alameda and Orange ) (Vernez et al., 1988). Using a more restrictive definition of homelessness, homeless adults were recruited from dedicated service sites (e.g., shelters or meal programs) and from the streets in an attempt to collect a more representative sample than from service sites alone.

Recent studies have expanded the scope and improved methods of studying homelessness in rural areas, going beyond mere population descriptions toward identifying ways to serve the rural homeless population and to intervene with at-risk populations in rural areas (Aron, 2004). For example, in 2006, a sample of 3,582 adults was interviewed in a one-night statewide survey of homeless adults and unaccompanied youth in Minnesota using a broad definition of homelessness. Selection criteria for the study included adults and youth in shelters (emergency shelters, domestic violence shelters, and transitional housing); non-sheltered adults and youth sampled from meal programs, drop-in centers, bridges, encampments, and other sites in more than 80 cities, towns, and surrounding areas; and other non-sheltered adults and youth who had stayed one night or longer in a shelter or been literally homeless (i.e., on the streets, in a car, in an abandoned building, or some other place not meant for habitation) any time within the previous seven days. This definition was broader than most by sampling from street sites and domestic violence shelters and by including anyone who had been literally homeless in the previous seven days. About one-third of homeless adults (30 percent) in the statewide Minnesota sample were sampled in non-metropolitan areas (i.e., outside of the seven-county metropolitan area that includes Minneapolis and St. Paul Twin Cities) (Wilder Research Center, 2007a, b), and about half of homeless youth (ages 17 or younger) were sampled from non-metropolitan areas (Wilder Research Center, 1998). While this study collected a convenience sample that does not likely reflect the true distribution of homeless adults and youth throughout the state, it documented a large proportion of homeless adults in the non-metropolitan areas (Wilder Research Center, 2007a).

During February and March of 1993, Kentucky conducted a statewide survey of 2,484 adults in both rural and urban service facilities that met the HUD definition of homeless (Kentucky Housing Corporation, 1994). In 2006, a one-night statewide survey of 2,311 homeless persons in Montana was collected (Montana Council on Homelessness, 2007). A broad definition of homelessness was used that included people living doubled up with friends or family or in transitional housing facilities (including domestic violence shelters), foster care, jail, prison, or prerelease settings. Due to the dispersal of the states population, the entire state was treated as rural for the purposes of this report and includes homeless persons from many frontier areas.

The most significant report among the recent literature is the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC) (Burt et al., 1999), with results stratified by central city, urban and suburban fringe, and rural areas (See Exhibit 1.) This descriptive study was based on samples of individuals drawn from 16 types of homeless service sites, although authors note that because shelters, meal programs, and dedicated homeless services sites are much scarcer in rural areas, homeless adults in rural areas may be underrepresented in their sample. Despite these limitations, the NSHAPC is the most authoritative and most often cited study of rural homeless persons. Not surprisingly, given the variation in their methodologies, locations, and goals, contradictions among findings of extant studies appear. Nevertheless, a profile of rural homeless persons in the United States can be constructed from a review of the existing literature.

Exhibit 1
Rural Homeless Clients in the U.S. in 1996 Compared with Central City and Suburban/Urban Clients
(Based on National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients [Burt et al., 1999])
Characteristic Rural Clients Rural Homeless Clients Compared with
Homeless Clients in Central City and Suburban/Urban Areas
Gender 77% male, 23% female Rural homeless clients included fewer women, compared to 29% in central cities and 45% in suburban/urban clients
Age (range 17+) 78% age 35 years or older Rural homeless clients were somewhat older
Ethnicitya,b 41% white (non-Hispanic), 41% American Indian, 9% African American, 7% Hispanic Rural homeless sample had fewer African Americans and Hispanics
Education 64% high school dropouts Rural homeless clients had double the rate of high school dropouts versus urban homeless clients
Family status Single-parent families: 17% of rural homeless sample were male or female parents with 1+ minor child Rural homeless adults were similar to central city (16%) and suburban/urban (14%) homeless adults

Most rural homeless women (74%) had one or more children with them

Few homeless men had a child with them, whether rural (1%), central city (2%), or suburban/urban (7%)

Single-mother families:16% of rural homeless sample were women with 1+ minor child Rural homeless clients were similar to central city (12%) and suburban/urban(12%) homeless clients
Single women:7% of the rural homeless sample were single women Rural homeless clients included fewer single women than central city (12%) and suburban/urban samples (31%)
Homelessness 62% first episode, 44% for 6 months or less Most rural homeless clients were experiencing their first episode of homelessness with most of these homeless less than 6 months; rates of first homelessness among rural homeless clients were very high compared to first homeless spells among central city (16%) and suburban/urban homeless clients (15%)
Habitation On previous night, 49% in shelters or voucher hotels, 45% temporary private housing, 4% on street Rural homeless clients less likely to be in shelter or on streets; more likely to be in county of birth
Employment 65% worked for pay past 30 days More rural homeless clients working although underemployed and working in informal, part-time, short-term, or seasonal work without benefits
Incomec $475 median income past 30 days, 36% received income from parents/friends, 6% no income Rural homeless clients had higher median income than more urban clients and less income from government programs; were more likely to receive cash support from parents or friends
Government entitlement 35% received support in past 30 days from AFDC, GA, SSI, food stamps, housing assistance Rural homeless clients had less income from means-tested government programs
Childhood Victimization 12% reported physical or sexual abuse before age 18 Rural homeless clients much less likely to report abuse
Incarceration 67% were incarcerated at least one night in past 30 days Rural homeless clients report higher rates of incarceration as minors and adults
a  Generally, in rigorous studies of homeless adults in urban areas, racial and ethnic rates tend to represent the local areas, usually with an overrepresentation of non-Hispanic African Americans and American Indians in the sample. This pattern of racial/ethnic composition may or may not generalize to rural areas.

b  Authors (Burt et al., 1999) caution (see footnote 10) interpretation of this finding since it represents only three American Indian clients at the same emergency shelter (1.3% of the actual unweighted rural client sample), but constitutes 34.4% of the sample after the data were weighted to account for the sample design.

c  Post (2002), in her analysis of the NSHAPC data, noted that rural clients were more likely to report income assistance from friends and less from government assistance, except for VA benefits. Also, average reported income reported may over-represent actual average incomes of rural homeless people who may live in remote rural or frontier areas and far from homeless-specific assistance programs/services

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