Primary Sources: Addressing Rural Homelessness

Image of a rural landscape.

For years, social services agencies have been raising the alarm at how hard rural and suburban families have been hit by the recession. Now, they have some numbers to support their case. Between 2007 and 2008, the percentage of homeless families entering suburban and rural shelters funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development increased by 9 percentage points. During the same period, the number of families entering shelters in cities decreased, say the authors of “Homeless Children: Update on Research, Policy, Programs, and Opportunities” (PDF, 641 KB), a literature review published in May for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. The authors attribute the change to the economic and foreclosure crisis, which was accelerating towards the end of HUD’s data collection period in 2008.

With services and opportunities few and far between in many rural areas, newly homeless young people and their families may travel long distances for better employment prospects, educational opportunities and access to services. That’s what has happened in Alaska, where Covenant House Anchorage, one of few youth homeless shelters in the state, served an increasing number of homeless young people from rural areas between 1999 and 2008, a rise from about 1 percent to about 7 percent of all youth. The authors of “Youth in Crisis: Characteristics of Homeless Youth Served by Covenant House Alaska” (PDF, 79 KB), published in March, observe that nearly all of the 13 to 17 year olds coming to the shelter from rural Alaska in that period were Alaska Natives. Compared to other youth, rural young people were more likely to have repeat stays. In addition, 86 percent of them were unemployed (compared to 72 percent of non-rural youth), and they were more likely to be living on the street or staying with adults other than their parents than youth coming from urban areas and outside Alaska.

Little research has been done on best practices for serving rural homeless youth. But “Critical Success Factors in High Performing Rural Continuums of Care,” published in March by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, gives some idea of how best to address and prevent homelessness in rural areas. Not surprisingly, success is all about people. Based on interviews with four rural continuums of care, or systems with a range of services for homeless people, the authors tease out common elements. Successful continuums of care, they write, have a coordinator or administrator who acts as the “glue person”—keeping everything together, coordinating relationships and sharing information within the continuum. Another key, they say, is having a “champion” in the community, a faith or community leader who advocates an end to homelessness and uses the respect he or she has to garner support. Successful continuums also gain community support for their missions by involving businesses, foundations, schools and other partners not traditionally associated with a continuum of care.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of these and other publications.)

Primary Sources is a summary of recent research on youth and families. Got a research topic you want to learn more about? E-mail us and we may feature it here.

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