Feb 5, 2020 - Economy & Business

Homelessness isn't just a big city problem

Illustration of a homeless person sitting in front of a white picket fence

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Homelessness is on the rise in many of America's biggest and most expensive cities — but it's a growing problem in rural areas, too.

Why it matters: People experiencing homelessness are often harder to count in rural areas and they have a harder time accessing support programs in small towns with fewer resources.

The big picture: Homelessness in the U.S. has risen for a third consecutive year, driven by a spike in California, the Department of Housing and Urban Development said in December.

Jobs continue to shift to cities — making life harder for people already struggling to find work and affordable housing.

"The long-term trend is that people are leaving rural areas and moving to cities. In rural areas there are fewer jobs and less income. It's not necessarily that housing options are so expensive, it's that job opportunities simply aren't there."
— Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness

By the numbers: One-third of rural Americans say homelessness is a problem in their community, according to a May poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Homelessness is often more hidden in rural areas than in cities.

  • Small towns are less likely to have stable shelters, so people are more likely to double up with friends or sleep on family members' couches. That also makes it harder to be counted during annual data collections.

"In rural communities, there's not a typical place where people experiencing homelessness might gather, such as a food pantry, soup kitchen or public library — places in urban areas where you might be able to see people more easily," said Shaye Rabold of the Kentucky Housing Corporation. "People are dispersed over large geographic areas."

Zooming in: Overall, 4,079 homeless people were counted in Kentucky in a 2019 national survey, the last single-night survey of homeless people for which data is available. That's a 10.6% increase over the January 2018 national count, per HUD data.

  • Kentucky's major metro areas — Louisville and Lexington — both saw around a 15% increase in homeless population between 2018 and 2019.
  • The rest of the state, which is mostly rural, saw a 6.9% increase.

Eastern Kentucky has been hit hard by the loss of coal mining jobs and a dwindling number of service-sector jobs.

  • Even in areas where there are jobs, there's very little public transportation for people living in spread-out rural counties to get to work.

"You may be living in a particular community but the job is a county over and there's no way to get there," Rabold said. "But even if you have an education, even if you have transportation, there just aren't enough jobs to go around."

Go deeper:

Go deeper