(Editors note: The current issue of Shelterforce is devoted to veteran homelessness. You can access the articles here).
Homelessness results from a variety of factors, including lack of affordable housing, poverty, job or income loss, mental illness, substance abuse, and health problems. For rural veterans, the skills gained during military occupations and training are not always transferable to the industries that comprise the rural economy, which increases the difficulty of finding permanent employment that pays a livable wage. In addition, many veterans live with the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder or physical disabilities from their service, complicating their ability to maintain safe, secure housing.
Although the task is daunting, the president and the VA’s efforts have led to a 33 percent decline in veterans’ homelessness since 2010. Specifically, rural America saw an 18.2 percent decline in veteran homelessness in 2014 alone, including a 10.3 percent decline in sheltered homeless veterans and a 29.2 percent decline in unsheltered homeless veterans. That is cause to celebrate. In rural areas where accurate homeless counts are more difficult, however, this data may not tell the whole story.
Rural homelessness does not manifest itself in the same way as urban homelessness. Literal homelessness, the condition of living on the street or in a shelter, as opposed to doubling up with family or friends, is often episodic and less common in rural areas than in cities for many reasons. As a result, rural homeless veterans are often less visible and harder to target and identify. Homelessness in rural areas is typically experienced through precarious housing conditions, where individuals move from one extremely substandard, overcrowded, and/or cost-burdened housing situation to another. In many instances, these individuals may not even consider themselves to be homeless.
Homeless counts in rural areas can be more challenging to conduct as homeless services are more difficult to access due to the large, relatively sparsely populated nature of rural America. Point in Time counts held each January through local and statewide Continuums of Care often rely on a critical mass of service providers to coordinate their efforts in order to capture the largest portion of the homeless population possible. Rural homeless individuals, including veterans, are often less likely to be engaged in homeless services like shelters, however, making data collection via service providers or large-scale homeless counts more difficult. VA medical centers are also used to collect data on veteran populations; however, on average, rural veterans must travel significantly farther to these centers than their urban counterparts. As a result, rural veterans can be less likely to utilize VA services and therefore less likely to be counted as homeless.
To truly end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015 we must ensure that all veterans have access to safe, secure housing. So, how can we ensure that the scope of these efforts includes harder-to-reach rural veterans?
Relying upon the knowledge of service providers in the field is critical. These are the people who know their communities firsthand and can help identify homeless veterans. Fortunately, the VA encourages community providers to consider the local conditions and needs of veterans in their areas when developing programs and delivering services. This flexibility is key for rural places. Urban programs transferred directly into rural settings have less impact if regional and geographical considerations are not taken into account. Acknowledgement of the differing challenges faced by rural locations can greatly increase program impact. The recently passed Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014, for example, allows veterans to access non-VA care if that veteran resides more than 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility. This will be immensely helpful to rural veterans who often have to travel considerable distances to receive their eligible benefits.
Accounting for the differences between urban and rural homelessness is also critical. As rural homelessness is not always literal homelessness, it is essential to ensure that those doubling up with family and friends have access to and are provided with needed services that will help them maintain stable, permanent housing. This again relies upon members of the community to help identify where individuals might be residing. Local knowledge is critical in remote, less densely populated rural areas where the majority of homeless service providers might be located hours away in regional hubs.
The president’s and the VA’s push to end homelessness among veterans should be applauded. The least we can do for these individuals who have sacrificed so much for our country is ensure they have access to safe, secure housing. We must remember, however, that it is more difficult to accurately assess our progress in rural areas. Rural veteran homelessness is declining, and the number of individuals receiving shelter is increasing.
This is progress no matter how you look at it. But we must remember that these numbers may not tell the whole story. Limited resources and vast geographies make PIT counts more difficult and potentially less accurate in rural areas, and veterans may be harder to locate and target there. Although they may be less visible, their service and their housing needs must not be forgotten.
(Photo Credit: Photographer is Stormi Greener. Used with permission of the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund)