An Invisible Issue: Rural Homelessness

Written by Betsy Horowitz

A disheveled old man in ragged clothes mutters to himself, picking through garbage in an alley. The sounds of the street echo off the walls of the neighboring buildings, car horns cutting through the general din of engines and conversations, footsteps and closing doors.


This scene, or something like it, has been portrayed as the common experience of someone experiencing homelessness in movies and television shows for decades. It can be difficult for most of us to imagine homelessness in any other setting, or with any different mix of traits, because the stereotypes that have been built before us are so deeply ingrained in our minds.


But stereotypes oversimplify complex issues. The scene presented above doesn’t accurately capture the full picture of homelessness in the big city, let alone homelessness in rural areas. It is impossible to fix an unseen problem, because producing a solution requires awareness that the problem exists in the first place.


Rural homelessness is an often invisible problem. Yet it exists – in our nation, over 98,000 people experiencing homelessness live in rural areas (“Data Visualization: Homeless Population Representation by Location,” 2019). Its causes are familiar: poverty/insufficient income, unemployment, and lack of affordable housing (“Rural Homelessness,” 2010). But it looks different from urban homelessness, both in demographics and in visibility. Single women make up a greater percentage of the rural homeless population than the urban homeless population (“Demographic Data Project: Geography,” 2019). Rural children make up the smallest percentage of school-aged children experiencing homelessness – but their numbers are growing at rates higher than their urban peers (“Student Homelessness in Rural America,” 2019). People experiencing homelessness in rural communities are more likely to find shelter by sharing another family’s home, or to live in a car, in the woods, or in other places that do not provide adequate housing (“Rural Homelessness,” 2010). Without a visible presence on the street, rural homelessness can be hidden even from people in the community.


Photo by Toby Wong on Unsplash.

Cars and friends’ couches are not safe, permanent solutions. But rural communities struggle to provide something better. It isn’t a question of people’s willingness to help their neighbor, as much as it is an issue of resources. A town with a population of 2,500 can’t staff and support organizations that provide health care, counseling, housing, and shelter for their citizens the way a city of 250,000 people can. Shrinking rural economies provide fewer opportunities to obtain gainful employment (“Rural Homelessness,” 2010), while home values and rent payments increase, making housing less affordable and increasing the risk of homelessness in their community (“Housing,” 2020).


This all sounds like bad news, and admittedly, it is. The good news is that people are still willing to help their neighbors, and Willis-Dady is a part of that. We provide safe emergency shelter and rapid re-housing in alignment with the Housing First model. Our case management service helps our clients attain the skills they need to seek, obtain, and maintain gainful employment, as well as access needed health care and other services. We also work with clients who are at risk for homelessness, believing that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. All of these services, in addition to Linn County’s robust local economy and excellent community resources, uniquely position our community to provide help to folks in Cedar Rapids and in our four neighboring rural counties - Buchanan, Cedar, Delaware, and Iowa.


Feeling inspired to help? Join us in the fight against homelessness! We have many opportunities that are waiting for someone like you to pitch in. Spread the word, volunteer, or donate. See the problem and the people affected by it. Let’s find the solution together.


Works Cited

Data Visualization: Homeless population representation by location. National Alliance to End Homelessness. (2019, December 30). Retrieved May 6, 2022, from https://endhomelessness.org/resource/data-visualization-homeless-population-representation-by-location/

Demographic data project: Geography. National Alliance to End Homelessness. (2019, December 30). Retrieved May 6, 2022, from https://endhomelessness.org/demographic-data-project-geography/

Housing. National Alliance to End Homelessness. (2020, January 1). Retrieved May 6, 2022, from https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/what-causes-homelessness/housing/

Rural Homelessness. National Alliance to End Homelessness. (2010, January 17). Retrieved May 6, 2022, from https://endhomelessness.org/resource/rural-homelessness/#:~:text=Historically%2C%20the%20greatest%20housing%20concern,also%20lead%20to%20rural%20homelessness.

Student Homelessness in Rural America. Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness. (2019, February 27). Retrieved May 6, 2022, from https://icphusa.org/reports/ruralreport/#thirty-eight-states-experienced-growth-in-rural-student-homelessness/