Out of the woods? Tackling homelessness in rural communities

Rory Weal is Churchill Fellow and former Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer at St Mungo’s. Here he writes about a new report on rural homelessness, and offers solutions for tackling this “forgotten” issue, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Rolling hills, luscious meadows, quaint village living – these are common conceptions of life in rural England.

But these idyllic images can hide the realities of hardship for too many, not least the thousands who sleep rough in rural communities across the UK. These communities are too often forgotten when we talk about homelessness – but they have been rising in recent years.

The state of homelessness in rural areas

Rough sleeping in rural communities had risen 65% since 2010. While between 2018 and 2019 rough sleeping across England fell by 9%, in rural areas numbers actually rose by 2%. The invisible nature of rural homelessness has bred an equal lack of attention in government policy – the result is not enough of the right services and housing, and too many people isolated and at risk as a result. In many cases austerity has hit harder – research by St Mungo’s found that spending on housing support and homelessness services had fallen by a third in Greater London compared to almost three quarters in the South West between 2008/9 and 2017/18.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Last week, I published new research on rural homelessness – comparing responses to rural homelessness in England with the United States, where there have been sustained reductions in levels of homelessness in multiple rural states over the past decade.

Spending time with outreach services and housing first providers, it was clear that when investment and strong strategic oversight is there – results can be delivered. I saw how services can be adapted to rural needs in my outreach shift in West Virginia, where levels of homelessness have fallen by more than a third since 2010.

Examining rural homelessness in the United States

Up at the crack of dawn with Beau Stiles, outreach manager, I saw the impact of securing buy-in from local businesses and community, who become powerful referral partners – as often the only point of contact for people sleeping rough in sparse communities with few services. This has been essential to reducing levels of homelessness, as Beau says: “without outreach you won’t touch the most vulnerable people, ever’.

The premium placed in rural areas of getting community buy-in extends to senior local leaders. In Mississippi, where levels of homelessness have halved over the past decade, I met with perhaps unlikely advocates for  compassionate responses to homelessness, in the form of the police chief of Elvis’s hometown of Tupelo and the state’s Republican supreme court justice. Both were convinced due to effective lobbying from local homeless services.

But this local level action has not emerged from nowhere – it has been driven by clear political leadership and adequate funding from central government. The approach under the Obama administration to deliver the first ever federal strategy to end homelessness, and expand investment in best practice services such as Rapid Rehousing and Permanent Supportive Housing has paid dividends. This has built on prior federal requirements for ‘continuums of care’ to ensure joined-up delivery of these services all parts of the country, including rural areas. The result in the states I visited is far fewer people experiencing the pain of a night out than there were a decade ago.

Tackling rural homelessness in the UK following the coronavirus pandemic

Back in the UK, we now have a golden opportunity to build on the effective measures to tackle rough sleeping we have seen since the coronavirus pandemic began in March.

As we move to the next phase of the response it is important that rural communities are not forgotten.  That means developing a new cross-government strategy which is truly national in scope, launched by the Prime Minister – as Obama did back in 2010. It also means investing £1bn for homelessness services, and ensuring rural communities get a fair share of funding to deliver tailored services such as outreach to their local needs. Finally, new legal requirements to tackle rough sleeping through new statutory bodies to keep ‘everyone in’ will be a key way of sustaining success in rural communities, in a way that continuums of care have delivered reductions in the US.

While measures since the coronavirus pandemic will have helped, we aren’t out of the woods yet – these actions from central government are needed to sustain reductions and ensure rural areas are not longer forgotten and ignored. You can read the full report here.