Homelessness is a Rural Problem Too

Last Updated: January 25, 2011

This article appeared in the January 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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Volunteers and others are spreading out across the nation this week to conduct a point-in-time count of homeless individuals. The count is required every two years (many states do it annually) by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It is used to gather information to target resources and guide policy to address the homelessness problem. The number of individuals and families who have no permanent place to live is expected to increase this year in many states and communities.

One thing is for sure: the count will underestimate the number of homeless people, especially in rural areas.

While it is often difficult to identify homeless individuals and families, schools are legally required to provide specific services to students who are homeless.

How is Homelessness Defined for Schools?

If you have ever known a student whose family was staying with friends or family because of economic or other hardship, you’ve known a homeless student. A young person who stays with or bounces around between friends and relatives because he or she cannot live at home? This is a homeless youth, regardless of whether the parents have a home. Have you known of a student whose family is living in a camper or tent, an abandoned building, or seriously substandard house? This is a homeless child.

Homelessness is defined for schools by the McKinney-Vento Act, federal legislation that covers a range of issues related to homelessness. The McKinney-Vento definition encompasses many of the kinds of homelessness that are most common in rural communities, including people who are staying with someone else or living in very substandard conditions. Students and families in these circumstances may be experiencing extreme stress, but many will not consider themselves “homeless.” Schools need to figure out ways to identify children who may be experiencing homelessness and how to approach their families, without offending them, to talk about available services and educational opportunities.

McKinney-Vento also spells out specific duties schools have toward homeless students. Some of these include:

  • All school districts must have a designated staff person who serves as homeless education liaison responsible for identifying, communicating with, and assisting homeless children and youth and their families, regardless of whether the district is receiving money designated for homeless student services. Liaisons are also required to help with housing and health care needs.
  • Schools must immediately enroll homeless students without a residency verification, even if the student lacks normally required documents and records. Schools must to the extent possible keep the child enrolled in the school they have previously attended or the school they choose.
  • Schools must specifically mention free lunch eligibility.
  • Schools must provide transportation for the student to and from the school and provide additional transportation services comparable to those provided to other students. If a student is living in one LEA (school district) and attending school in another, the LEAs must work out transportation arrangements.
  • Schools may not segregate homeless students or provide services to them at off-site locations.
  • Schools are required to take steps to avoid stigmatizing homeless students and families.

Why is homelessness underestimated in rural areas?

Homelessness is hard to measure in any circumstance because homeless people have no address and no specific place to stay. While most people think of a person who has no job and lives on the street in an urban area as “homeless,” homelessness actually takes on many forms. In fact, some homeless people hold jobs and a growing number of homeless people are families with children.

Complicating the matter is the variety of definitions used to identify homeless individuals. The McKinney-Vento definition encompasses more ways in which individuals experience homelessness than does the HUD definition.

The HUD definition, which is used for many official purposes, is a much more narrow definition. It identifies as homeless a person who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence or who has a primary night-time residency in a shelter that is operated to provide temporary living accommodations.

The HUD counts do not include the kinds of homelessness that are most common in rural areas. This is one reason rural homelessness is undercounted.

Beyond the definition, the counting process is not as targeted to rural areas as to urban areas where homeless individuals are more likely to congregate. In part because few rural communities have homeless shelters.

Read more:

Additional resources on rural homelessness and schools’ responsibilities under McKinney-Vento:

McKinney-Vento Guidance from U.S. Department of Education for Schools

Read more from the January 2011 Rural Policy Matters.