Youth Homelessness Similar in Rural and Urban Communities, Research Suggests

Homeless youth in rural areas are more likely to stay with friends or sleep outside than visit shelters, the report found.

Homeless youth in rural areas are more likely to stay with friends or sleep outside than visit shelters, the report found. shutterstock

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Rural youth are as likely to experience homelessness as kids living in urban areas, but may have less access to support services.

Rural youth are as likely to experience homelessness as kids living in urban areas, but have less access to support services and employment opportunities, according to a new national study.

The report, titled “Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in Rural America,” found that 9.2 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 who reside in predominantly rural counties report experiencing homelessness in the last year, compared to 9.6 percent of their urban counterparts. The difference was similar for younger teens between the ages of 13 and 17—in rural areas, 4.4 percent of that age group had experience homelessness in the past year, compared to 4.2 percent of their peers in more urban areas.

“We tend to think of homelessness as a big city problem and limited to people sleeping in urban parks, train stations, or shelters. Until today, we’ve never really had good data to show otherwise,” said Matt Morton, a research fellow at Chapin Hall, the independent policy research center at the University of Chicago that released the study. “Now we know, just because youth homelessness might be less visible and less concentrated in rural America doesn’t mean it isn’t going on. The problem is hitting these communities just as much as it is urban ones, and it’s putting young people’s healthy development and positive transitions to adulthood at risk.”

The report is the fifth in a series of research briefs on youth homelessness from Chapin Hall, and is among the first ever to focus on the similar risks faced by young adults in rural and urban areas.

To compile the latest brief, researchers used data from the Voices of Youth Count, a national research and policy initiative designed to collect information on homelessness among people between the ages of 13 and 25. Methodology included a national survey where people discussed their self-reported experiences, in-depth interviews, surveys with care providers and a policy and fiscal review. To identify rural areas, researchers largely adhered to the Census Bureau’s standard, which classifies a county as rural if more than half of its population resides outside of an urban area. Sixty percent of counties in the United States meet that definition.

Using those metrics, researchers found similar rates of youth homelessness in urban and rural areas. But the problem may be more “hidden” in rural areas. Homeless youth in those communities are more likely to be staying with other people or sleeping outside than their urban counterparts, and are about half as likely to be staying in homeless shelters. That’s largely because youth shelter services don't exist as much in rural places, the report says.

“Youth experiencing homelessness don’t have such places to congregate and are thus less visible,” it says. “Given this higher degree of ‘hiddenness’ in rural communities, administrative data and traditional point-in-time count methods may have a greater risk of underestimating the extent of youth homelessness in these areas.”

That’s one example of a larger issue described in the research: counties with smaller populations were much less likely to have youth-specific services for homeless populations. A provider survey conducted in 22 counties “found very few runaway and homeless youth service providers.” In six small counties, half had no programs specifically for runaways or homeless youth. The rest had only one or two.

In general, in those counties, “broader youth service organizations were the primary service entities for youth experiencing homelessness. None of the small counties indicated any host home or rapid rehousing programs for youth while several medium- and large-sized counties noted at least some instances of these programs,” the report says.

Rates of homelessness in rural communities are affected by issues specific to those areas, including higher poverty rates and fewer economic opportunities. Fifty-seven percent of youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who were experiencing homelessness in small counties were neither attending school nor employed, compared to 46 percent in large counties. They were also more likely to have been in juvenile detention or jail (52 percent versus 43 percent) and were less likely to be employed (23 percent versus 35 percent).

And in smaller communities, economic and workforce events can create large ripples. In Walla Walla County, Washington, for example, food-canning factories closed, marking a “structural jobs transition” that “disproportionately affected low-income households and fueled family instability and tensions,” the report says.

The brief makes several recommendations to address both the problem of youth homelessness in rural communities and the lack of specific data examining the problem, including reexamining federal programs and funding to make sure that youth in every part of the country have access to help and support; establishing ongoing grant and assistance programs to specifically address homelessness in rural communities and engaging rural school systems and youth-serving organizations to prevent young people from becoming homeless.

“Key findings and common themes emerged from this brief that require collective action from all levels of government, from public systems, and from local community leaders and organizations,” the report concludes. “Together, we can end youth homelessness in America. And we can get there faster by tailoring strategies to specific types of communities and marginalized populations.”

Morton said researchers are actively working with federal agencies to ensure that those recommendations translate to action.

“We have far too little evidence on exactly what intervention models work—and don’t work—to prevent and address youth homelessness in rural areas,” he said. “We need serious investments in collaborations with young people with lived experience of homelessness to develop and evaluate creative approaches to housing and supports for young people in rural America.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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