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The ‘Hidden’ Crisis of Rural Homelessness

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After serving a two-year sentence for methamphetamine possession, Holly Phelps had nowhere safe to live. Phelps found a job working at a laundromat in Marion, Illinois, but she couldn’t earn enough to rent a place for herself and her daughters, then 11 and 12 years old. Her ex-husband was gone. Her mother lived an hour away, but was struggling with alcoholism, so it wasn’t a stable home for Phelps and her daughters.

“I had no healthy place to go. I didn’t know if I was coming or going. I was keeping my stuff in a shed, going all over the place—and no one understood what I was going through,” she said.

Phelps spent more than two years bouncing from place to place, before the Southern Illinois Coalition for the Homeless (SICHome), an advocacy group that serves rural counties, helped Phelps find a rent-subsidized apartment in Marion, where she and her daughters now live.

For those two years, Phelps and her two children had no dependable, secure shelter. But since she wasn’t sleeping on the street or in a shelter, she didn’t meet the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of “homelessness,” and therefore wasn’t eligible for any emergency-shelter grants. She and others in rural areas make up what advocates and social workers call “the hidden homeless”—individuals and families who don’t have permanent housing but aren’t sleeping rough in a big city. Compared to the urban homeless, this population has less access to shelters and supportive services and are rarely counted, making them all-but invisible to policymakers. A new study from the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness (ICPH) suggests that while the federal government has reduced homelessness in many urban areas, the crisis of the hidden homeless in rural America is getting worse.

“When people think of homelessness, they think of a person sleeping on the street in a major city,” said Angie Lyon, program coordinator at Hancock Hope House, a shelter serving four rural counties in central Indiana. “But the reality is more complicated. We have people who are bouncing from couch to couch, who live in their car, who live in motels—but in general they have fewer places to go and fewer people trying to help them.”

Nobody knows for sure how many people in the United States are in situations similar to Phelps. This is not only because rural homeless populations are difficult to count, but also because HUD makes no serious attempts to count them. The department measures homelessness by conducting an annual volunteer-led census every January of people who are in shelters or sleeping on the street.

In bigger cities, this means volunteers search a few square miles each for people sleeping on the street. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s useful for determining the scope of “chronic homelessness—the individuals who don’t have shelter or temporary housing, even during the coldest month of the year.

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