Rural homelessness is often overlooked in discussions about how to curb homelessness. In dense urban areas where there are shelters, both in terms of homeless shelters and covered areas on the street where homeless can sleep, homelessness is an issue that urban residents see on a daily basis. Rural homelessness is not as visible.
Part of the problem is that many definitions of homelessness are rigid, and need to be expanded in order to encompass the homelessness that exists in rural areas. Due to lack of available shelters in rural areas, homeless tend to live in cars or campers or with relatives in over-crowded, substandard residences. Rural communities face barriers in curbing their homelessness as they are often denied federal funding since their homeless population doesn’t fit the rigid definition of homelessness as defined in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance that does not define those living in substandard structures as being homeless.
While the solutions for rural versus urban homelessness might vary the causes are similar. A lack of affordable housing and poverty are the two main factors leading to homelessness. While unclean and overcrowded streets of a presumed urban area might be the image that first comes to mind when poverty is discussed, rural areas are suffering from rising poverty rates more than urban ones are. The reality is rural areas experience greater levels of poverty than urban ones. Periods of unemployment are longer, job opportunities are fewer, and wages are lower. In fact, despite housing costs being lower in rural areas so are wages making housing just as unaffordable as in urban areas.
Another problem that stands in the way of helping the homeless in rural areas is that they are often too embarrassed to admit their circumstances or to seek out help. There is a lot of shame associated with poverty and homelessness despite the fact that a large percentage of homeless in rural areas do have jobs, they just don’t get paid enough to afford better living conditions. When you consider that a greater number of homeless in rural areas are women (about 42%)and that there are a greater number of homeless families and individuals under 18, providing safe conditions for the homeless is crucial. Help is farther away and more difficult to get to than in urban areas making the homeless in rural areas more vulnerable to dangerous weather conditions or violence.
One of the main ways that rural homelessness can be curbed is by keeping housing prices down and having state offered initiatives to help people afford adequate housing. Also petitioning the government to expand the definition of homelessness to include unsafe or sub standard housing will allow rural communities to get the aid they need from the federal government.
The Ironton-Lawrence County CAO offers healthcare for the homeless in our area. These services include adult and pediatric medicine, dental, optical, podiatry, mental health, substance abuse, transportation, and pharmaceuticals. Our outreach services assist difficult-to-reach homeless persons in accessing care and provide assistance in establishing eligibility for entitlement services and housing. The Lawrence County area also has local churches and the City Mission that provide emergency food, clothing, and shelter.
The issues surrounding homelessness can seem daunting, and in some ways they are. But when you break them down to smaller individual actions there’s a lot you can do. Write or call your representatives expressing your concern that there are citizens in Lawrence County who could benefit from homeless aid. In your personal life be kind when discussing homelessness to help remove the stigma around it. Remind people that anyone can fall on hard times and that good, hardworking people are among those struggling to make ends meet. You’ll be surprised what can be accomplished when people come together with kindness to help their friends and neighbors out.