My colleagues and I at USICH and HUD are looking for ways to better understand the challenges and opportunities that rural communities face in ending homelessness. We also want to help strengthen peer-to-peer connections that make the work of ending homelessness easier, and hear how we could better target federal strategies to support rural communities. That’s why we brought together 15 communities in Boise, Idaho, at the end of September. We wanted to hear directly from leaders working to end rural homelessness, and to provide another platform for them to hear from each other about the key strategies that are leading to their successes, and to brainstorm solutions and opportunities to support other states and communities.
We were lucky to have representatives, including Balances of State, from Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin join us and staff from Education, HHS, HUD, USDA, CSH, and Collaborative Solutions for two full days.
Our discussion was focused on hearing about unique promising practices and challenges related to:
- Implementing proactive outreach and engagement ,
- Developing and implementing coordinated entry processes ,
- Developing innovative crisis and permanent housing models ,
- Engaging mainstream systems and programs like PHAs and child welfare,
- Addressing the intersection of the opioid crisis and homelessness , and
- Collecting and reporting data (including conducting PIT counts and ensuring comprehensive HMIS coverage).
We also spent time talking about revising the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness to ensure that rural communities are well represented and that the unique considerations for ending homelessness in these communities are reflected in the Plan.
Here are some other points we heard.
- There is an inadequate supply of affordable housing units in rural communities, and much of the supply that does exist is substandard. Rural communities need support to address the lack of affordable housing, and to improve engagement with Public Housing Agencies and Multi-Family Housing operators to increase access to these mainstream housing opportunities for people experiencing or at-risk of homelessness.
- Rural communities need support developing and sustaining the capacity of the homelessness services system, and would benefit from more targeted support focused specifically on strengthening leadership, governance, and capacity building.
- The lack of infrastructure, primarily access to transportation services, is a significant barrier for connecting people to services and housing opportunities.
- Faith-based organizations are often critical partners in ending homelessness in rural communities. Support is also needed to leverage the expertise of private and philanthropic organizations in local efforts.
- Rural communities indicated the need for assistance with identifying lead organizations at the state and/or local levels responsible for combating the opioid crisis.
- Communities rely heavily on federal investments and support across systems and need additional support to both access federal resources and to fully leverage those resources.
- Federal partners should do a better job talking about the players responsible for ending homelessness in rural communities, such as Community Action Agencies, county leadership, and governor’s offices.
The conversation isn’t over. We want to keep partnering with these and other rural states and communities to address the unique ways that homelessness presents itself in rural communities, and to leverage the unique strength that rural communities bring to this work – like their deep investment in and care for the places they call home. We’re also working in partnership with Collaborative Solutions to develop a resource that will walk through promising practices and approaches for preventing and ending homelessness in rural communities. Stay tuned!