What does homelessness in rural America look like?
In Southwest Oregon it looks like a city of under 25,000 residents with nearly 150 people on a waitlist for temporary housing.
In Eastern Kentucky, it looks like a severe shortage of affordable housing made immeasurably worse by a natural disaster.
For many tens of thousands of individuals and families in rural America, it looks like another anxiety-ridden night.
Homelessness in rural communities is generally less conspicuous than major cities like Portland, Oregon, or Los Angeles. “In rural communities, homelessness does tend to be more hidden,” said Adrienne Bush, director of the Homeless & Housing Coalition of Kentucky. “It expresses itself through housing insecurity, folks doubled up with friends or family, people couch surfing because they don’t have a place of their own.”
Nationwide, homelessness rose less than a half percent from 2020 to 2022 but almost 6% in rural communities. The reasons are many and varied.
A primary factor is, of course, the cost of housing, said Lance George, director of research and information at the Housing Assistance Council in Washington, D.C. Wages are often stagnant, he said, and housing costs keep rising.
Compounding the problem is the fact that because large-scale development is rare in rural communities, construction costs are often higher and there’s therefore less incentive for private investment.
But some rural communities are rising to the challenge, recognizing that getting people into at least temporary housing is critical to the health and well-being of the entire community.
George said working with community-based organizations inspires him.
“They’re incredibly resourceful and ingenious and work on shoestring budgets and get amazing amounts of work done. They provide amazing services for their communities. And that inspires my hope.”
Two such examples are found in rural Oregon and Kentucky.
Taylor Sisk is a freelance reporter who had his work published in Kaiser Health News, National Geographic, and 100 Days in Appalachia, among others.
Jan Pytalski is the associate editor of The Daily Yonder.