Academic journal article Social Work

Homelessness in Rural Areas: Causes, Patterns, and Trends

Academic journal article Social Work

Homelessness in Rural Areas: Causes, Patterns, and Trends

Article excerpt

Efforts to address the problem of homelessness with emergency responses during the 1980s have failed to stop the growth of this social condition. Although homelessness is not new to the United States (Hoch, 1987), the number of people without a home has risen dramatically during the 1980s (Burt & Cohen, 1989). Stereotypical portraits of homeless people as skid-row alcoholics and happy wanderers have been replaced by more accurate portrayals that show people who are homeless because of economic and social factors beyond their control (Hopper, 1986; U.S. Committee on Government Operations, 1985). Most prior studies on homelessness have focused on large urban areas (Hombs & Snyder, 1982; Rossi, Fisher, & Willis, 1985; U.S. Conference of Mayors, 1986, 1989); few studies have examined homelessness in rural communities (Redburn & Buss, 1986). Yet homelessness in rural areas appears to be growing (Frank & Streeter, 1987; Housing Assistance Council, 1987; Patton, 1987; Wilkerson, 1989). The lack of knowledge about the needs of people who are homeless in rural and other nonurban areas and about the causes of their homelessness has prevented social workers and policymakers from adequately addressing the problem. This article presents the results from the first major statewide study of rural and nonurban homelessness. During a sixth-month period in 1990, 919 homeless adults were interviewed in 21 randomly selected rural counties in Ohio. The results document the characteristics, needs, and resources of people who are unable to locate and afford a place to live in rural America.

Homelessness in Rural Areas

Rossi (1989) noted that about 40 studies of homelessness have been completed in large and mid-sized cities in the United States. Estimates of the number of homeless people in the United States varied in the early 1980s from 250,000 to 3,000,000 (Hombs & Snyder, 1982; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1984). More recently, studies have estimated that between 500,000 and 735,000 individuals are homeless on any given night (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1989). In 1990 the U.S. Bureau of the Census attempted to count the number of people who were homeless throughout the country. Their results have been criticized as undercounting (Burt, 1992). Of 39,000 surveys sent by the U.S. Bureau of the Census to local officials across the country to identify shelter and street locations for data collection, only 10 percent were returned. Of those returned, nearly all were from urban centers with more than 50,000 people (Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, 1990). Although a definitive tional count of homeless people is not available, there is widespread agreement that the number of homeless Americans has grown significantly since 1980 (Burt & Cohen, 1989; Reyes & Waxman, 1989; Wright, 1989). Reports also have begun to note that rural homelessness appears to be growing (Patton, 1987; Segal, 1989). The rate of poverty in rural areas is increasing more rapidly than in urban areas, and unemployment rates are as high as 20 percent (McCormick, 1988). However, people who are homeless in rural areas are often less visible than their urban counterparts because of the scarcity of social services and shelter programs to assist them. Instead, they often must rely on relatives, friends, and self-help strategies (Patton, 1987). The increase in the number of people who are homeless in rural areas has placed a significant strain on these traditional support systems. The U.S. Commission on Cooperation and Security in Europe (1990) noted, "While the rural homeless do not face with equal intensity many of the problems associated with homeless conditions in urban areas, their need for shelter and other comprehensive services appears similarly pressing".

During the past decade many rural Americans have experienced an economic crisis unmatched since the Great Depression (Patton, 1987). …

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