America’s “Hidden” Rural Homelessness Crisis

Homelessness is often associated with urban areas: large cities such as San Francisco or New York. Therefore, policy and media attention often centers around those areas. But what about those experiencing homelessness in rural America? How is their experience different, and how can we help them?

While homelessness is frequently considered an urban phenomenon, America’s rural towns are not immune to the homelessness crisis. According to a poll conducted by NPR in May 2019, one-third of rural Americans report homelessness as a problem in their communities. 

However, rural homeless populations are quite difficult to count, even more so because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) census does not make the effort. The department measures homelessness by conducting an annual volunteer-led survey of people who are in shelters or sleeping on the streets. This system is not perfect in urban cities but is even harder in rural areas. 

Volunteers cover large areas of land, the majority of which is unlit or inaccessible by car. Further, individuals experiencing homelessness in rural areas are more likely to couch-surf, stay in motels, or “double-up” with another, all of which are excluded from the HUD survey. 

While the causes of homelessness are similar everywhere–unemployment, high rent, illness–small rural towns have far fewer job opportunities and support systems. Seeing as federal funding for resources is based on the size of the homeless population, the undercounting in rural areas of individuals who are homeless has dramatic effects. Without the necessary funding, small towns cannot adequately support their homeless populations.

However, in recent months, the HUD released the 2022 Continuum of Care (CoC) Supplemental Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) to Address Unsheltered and Rural Homelessness. Under this NOFO, $322 million will be made available to improve communities’ ability to effectively and humanely address homelessness by connecting individuals and families to housing, health care, and supportive services. One of the funding opportunities through this Special NOFO is Rural Set Aside, which includes projects that will serve geographic areas that meet the definition of “rural areas” and meet other thresholds outlined in the NOFO. 

This funding represents a monumental opportunity for CoCs– regional planning bodies that coordinate housing and services funding for families and individuals experiencing homelessness– to identify strategic approaches to reducing and hopefully ending unsheltered homelessness. Further, it also represents a chance to end punitive tactics, support acutely needed street outreach, and demonstrate a significant reduction in unsheltered rates in their communities.

While increased funding is a step in the right direction, it is important to remember that homelessness does not only occur in urban areas and that experiencing homelessness in a rural area widely differs from doing so in a large city.


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