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Rural homelessness is on the rise

New government funding sings a worn-out tune


A woman living in a wooded area on the outskirts of Portland, Ore. Getty Images/Photo by Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald

Rural homelessness is on the rise

When Dennis Byrd’s wife died of cancer, he lost hope—and housing. He lived in the woods outside Cedartown, Ga., for five or six years, setting up his makeshift campsite behind Community Share Ministries. The ministry is the only homeless shelter in Cedartown, a rural town of about 10,000 people in between what residents call the “ABC Quarter,” Atlanta, Birmingham, and Chattanooga. The Christian-based program offers a place for individuals to break addictions and rebuild their lives. Byrd came to faith in Jesus Christ at a tent revival on the property. Now, he is in the ministry’s 90-day program.

Like in bigger cities, “there’s a large problem in our rural town with housing,” said program director Jason Slaughter. But Slaughter doesn’t see many piles of worn belongings under overpasses or men with scraggly beards holding signs. Small-town homelessness looks different. “Most people that are truly homeless are not trying to get around anybody. They’re sleeping out in the woods or sleeping in cars … especially single mothers with children,” Slaughter said.

In June, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released a notice of funding opportunity that set aside $322 million and invited eligible programs to apply. Continuums of Care (CoC) —regional planning bodies that coordinate housing and funding—have until Oct. 20 to apply for a portion of the funding. The agency delegated $267.5 million for projects as part of the “Unsheltered Homelessness Set Aside,” and $54.5 million for projects serving rural areas.

But the federal money comes with strings attached. On the list of HUD’s policy priorities: “Use a housing first approach” that “prioritizes rapid placement and stabilization in permanent housing and does not have service participation requirements or preconditions.” Under the housing first model, programs shouldn’t require things like sober living or class participation. Experts warn the new funding rehashes worn-out solutions.

A HUD report to Congress estimated that on a single night in January 2020, largely rural Continuums of Care had the “largest percentage of people experiencing homelessness in unsheltered locations.” The agency estimated an 8.3 percent increase in the rural unsheltered population from 2019-20.

The department has not yet released post-pandemic homelessness data, but Ann Oliva, the CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, believes the number of homeless individuals is climbing. During the pandemic, many families benefited from eviction moratoriums, emergency rental assistance, and other cash benefits. “Once those resources ended, we are very nervous about an uptick in homelessness … including those folks in rural areas,” said Oliva.

HUD defines rural homelessness as taking place in a nonmetropolitan area, a metropolitan statistical area where at least 75 percent of the population lives in nonurban census blocks, or a state that has a population density of fewer than 30 persons per square mile.

Many rural areas don’t have an accessible shelter. Karen Gregory is a volunteer at Christ’s Cupboard, a food pantry in Red Oak, Iowa, a small town of 5,326. If a homeless individual comes to get food, she has to refer them to shelters in Council Bluffs 48 miles away. “That’s a real void in our area,” she said. “Most of them do not have a vehicle, so it’s pretty hard for them to get where they need to go to get assistance.”

Community Share Ministries serves all of Cedartown as well as about a 20-mile radius in Polk County. In Mason City, Iowa, Katie Magnuson is a case manager for Northern Lights, a shelter for men, and New Beginnings House of Hope for women and children. They are the only homeless shelters serving the small city (population 27,064) and the seven surrounding counties. Men and women can stay for 30 days. They are drug tested and can participate in an optional Bible Study or other classes. The men’s shelter is full.

Though rural homeless is a smaller-scale problem, rural governments have a weaker tax base and fewer resources, says Stephen Eide, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. But, he argues, it should be easier to find a place to start a shelter or a supportive housing program. It can be difficult to find any available space in New York City or San Francisco.

Rural communities also tend to be more tight-knit, said Michele Steeb, a homelessness expert for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “There’s a little more accountability and support from the community than you would find in an urban area where you don’t even know your neighbor, let alone the guy standing on the street corner,” she said.

But rural programs that don’t see merely giving someone shelter as a long-term solution don’t have many other options. Instead of telling programs like Community Share Ministries of Northern Lights Alliance how to operate, the “federal government should just find those people and give them the support they need to do what they’re doing already, but just on a larger scale, as opposed to telling them that they’re doing it all wrong,” Eide said.

Steeb also points out that housing is often only a symptom of a deeper issue. In California—the only state to codify the housing first approach in statute—the unsheltered homeless population rose by 47.1 percent after a 33-percent increase in permanent housing units was dedicated to the homeless between 2016 and 2019.

“So HUD is giving more money, but it’s more money to housing subsidies, which for the vast majority of the homeless, that’s not enough,” said Steeb, “That’s not all they need.”

Deeper issues such as addiction and mental health challenges require deeper solutions.

When Slaughter started as director 12 years ago, about 80 percent of the people at Community Share Ministries came from fatherless homes. Now, it’s about 95-98 percent. Dennis Byrd grew up in a broken home, then a children’s home. Methamphetamine use is also a big problem.

The ministry currently serves 15 men and 11 women. The clients work through a 90-day program. They detox from drugs, participate in Bible studies, get Social Security cards or birth certificates, and re-evaluate their lives. Slaughter doesn’t want to feel forced to water down the gospel message, so the program doesn’t take any government funding: “I know the answer. The answer is Christ. And for us not to be able to tell them the answer, there’d be no reason for us to even open up.”


Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband Ben.

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