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Out of sight: rural homelessness still an issue

If you’ve ever spent time in a city, you have an idea of what homelessness typically looks like—a picture that doesn’t match up with the reality of homelessness in our area.

Rather than people who sleep on park benches or ask for money on the street, people experiencing homelessness or inadequate shelter in rural areas are often “hidden” victims of substandard housing conditions and lack of affordable housing.

In Wayne County there are people working hard on behalf of addressing rural homelessness. Helen Kelly, who works for Wayne County Human Services, said at the recent Point in Time Count—a day in January when communities count their homeless—that applying for grants is one of her favorite parts of the job. Good thing. The county received nearly half a million in funding within the last year from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to address homelessness right here. Yes, here.

Though the number of people who are visibly experiencing homelessness in Wayne County may be only a handful (see the story on page 8), “hidden homelessness” is a pervasive issue in rural areas. The poverty rate among people living in rural areas is consistently higher than in cities. Substandard housing conditions, including houses without running or clean water, or without plumbing, electricity, or heat, mean that even if there is a roof over peoples’ heads, it isn’t necessarily keeping them safe.

In Wayne County, data gathered by the Housing Assistance Council and the American Community Survey estimates that .7% of occupied homes and apartments lack complete plumbing—these numbers are difficult to calculate due to inadequate data, but that compares to .5% nationwide.

Roughly 33% of occupied units in Wayne County are considered “inadequate” by national standards. More than half of renters in the county are paying 30% or more of their income toward rent, which is considered a cost burden.

In Sullivan County, the numbers are similar, with about 40% of occupied housing considered inadequate, which is more than the national average.

Thanks to funding, and advocates who work toward connecting homeless veterans, families and youth with assistance services, the numbers in the county do show that people who are experiencing homelessness are receiving help. The county was able to help more than 200 people in the last year.

The number of available beds in transitional and emergency housing in the county has more than doubled in the last five years. Now we have to work on fighting root issues that cause people to lose their homes and live in poor conditions, including the opioid epidemic, old and/or vacant housing stock that needs major repair, veterans’ issues and mental health among them. 

More national recognition of rural homelessness would be helpful as well. Chairman of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell made some comments about rural America at a housing conference in Washington, D.C., late last year.

“Unemployment rates in some persistently poor rural counties remain much higher than the national figures,” he said. “While the economy is strong overall, we recognize that some communities have yet to feel the full benefits of the ongoing expansion.”

Powell, a Trump appointee, went on to note some issues still plaguing rural and underserved communities, including inadequate access to broadband internet and renters in rural areas struggling to afford their rent.

In another session of the conference in D.C., a Rural Housing Coalition representative noted that although President Donald Trump’s voter base comes from largely rural areas, his administration has not granted significant funding to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to address major problems in those regions of the country. The 2018 budget included expanded assistance for housing assistance programs throughout the country, but rarely does that money go specifically toward rural housing.

According to the Interagency Council on Homelessness, rural communities have strengths that actually put us in good position to take on the challenge of ending homelessness.

Many of us are familiar with these benefits of rural living, including strong social networks and a commitment to taking care of kin and neighbors. Unfortunately, we’re also apt to forget about some problems typically associated with big cities. Pride or fear of running into someone who could recognize them sometimes discourages people in small communities from seeking out social services, which makes it all the more important that there is money and support for outreach initiatives addressed at solving housing and homelessness issues in the area. 

 

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