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Counting Frontier Homelessness
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The vast geography of frontier America makes homelessness easy to miss, but by quantifying and putting a face to rural homelessness, communities gain an understanding of the difficulties associated with housing in America’s small towns and rural areas. Many rural areas are moving to collect Point-in-Time samples that validate and honor the experiences of those who live in the margins.
Counting Frontier Homelessness

Homelessness is alive and well in rural America, and yet it is largely invisible. Joe* has been homeless for thirty years. He generally has a cigarette in the corner of his mouth – sometimes lit, sometimes not, and he’ll be the first to say he “drinks a bit.” He “gets by” with nearly a dozen others – men, women, and a few children – who live in tents and makeshift shacks way up a deserted gulch. Unless explicitly told, most of us will never know about Joe’s camp, much less see it.

Joe’s isn’t the only face of rural homelessness. Molly* has been homeless for a year. She cleans motel rooms, and catches showers when she’s almost finished for the day. For months, Molly has careened from friend to friend and relative to relative, sleeping on couches until she’s no longer welcome. This month, she’s sleeping in her car. Mike* picks up odd jobs, generally on construction sites. He is paid in cash at the end of each shift, and spends the money to survive the nights. Juliette* has been in and out of the domestic violence shelter in another community a dozen times, but she always comes back to her abuser, partly because their small town is the only home that she’s ever known.  

The vast geography of rural and frontier America makes homelessness easy to miss: 80 percent of the nation is rural. In 2011, 46 percent met the criteria for frontier (e.g., fewer than six persons per square mile). The untold miles of winding roads, mountains, plains, rolling fields and small towns are home to one in five Americans. Poverty and intergenerational trauma are precursors to homelessness in these areas, as is the stigma associated with asking for help. Rural pride runs deep.

That means people may not self-identify as “homeless,” even though the place that they stay would clearly be identified as “unfit for human habitation” in an urban environment. And if rural homelessness is difficult to identify, it’s harder to quantify. That said, until we collectively document rural homelessness, it will never be well recognized or addressed. The good news is that many rural areas are doing an excellent job of performing Point-in-Time (PIT) counts. Below are some tips for conducting these counts in rural communities.

Start early.
Talk to community leaders, civic organizations, and churches. Be sure to include those individuals who may already be aware of homelessness in your community – police and sheriff officials, social workers, housing providers, librarians, foresters, and parks staff.  Provide information about the problem. If you know there are at least twenty-one people experiencing homelessness in your area, say so and share some stories. Leave personal identifiers out, even if that means changing pertinent details.

Be specific in your ask.
When you ask for help, be specific about what you need. When people help, thank them. When you get volunteers, train them and encourage them to role-play with the survey before delivering it. The questions on the PIT survey are personal, and posing them to strangers can be uncomfortable for the respondent and the interviewer alike.

Keep confidences.
If you have earned the trust of persons experiencing homelessness in your area, then you already have an idea of where they stay. People living without homes – whether in camps or their cars – are highly vulnerable. You can put them at great risk if you are not circumspect about where they stay.

Be flexible.
It might be difficult to reach remote areas on the day of the survey. If someone who is welcome in the camps will help, consider sending him or her out a little early or a few days late to accommodate weather or other conditions. If friends or family members know where a loved one is staying, have them deliver and return the survey. Make sure you learn where the respondent was sleeping on the night of the count.

Be respectful.
Those being surveyed are giving you their time. Offer hygiene kits, blankets, coats, caps, hand and foot warmers, bottles of water, or granola bars – even small signs of appreciation go a long way. Treat the individuals who you survey with the same courtesy that you would extend to business acquaintances. Thank them and be sure to ask if they have questions. Don’t push if someone chooses not to answer some of the questions. You are being privileged with this information – you do not have a right to it.

Engage a community kitchen.
Find a community kitchen willing to host a Thanksgiving-style meal the night of the count. Spread the word through public service radio ads, word of mouth, posters and flyers. After the meal, administer the survey with as much respect and privacy as possible. Thank people for participating with a candy bar, fruit, or another portable snack.

Offer connections to other services.
Invite the range of services reflected by your rural Continuum of Care (CoC) to “set up shop” on the day of the count, preferably in the building where you’re offering a meal. Include everyone you can think of, such as health care providers, the food bank, employment services, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and housing providers. The information that they make available may turn out to be just the hand up someone needs to get back on his or her feet.

In conclusion, PIT counts are valuable to rural communities in many ways. By quantifying and putting a face on rural homelessness, you validate and honor those who are enduring it and gain the knowledge and ability to help your community move toward change.

* While these vignettes are based on real situations, all names have been changed to protect privacy and identities. 

National Rural Health Day (accessed 10/2013). About Rural Health in America.  

Rural Assistance Center (4/24/2013). How much of the U.S. is frontier?

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