Last month, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago released a report titled “Challenges & Opportunities in Addressing Rural Youth Homelessness,” containing a qualitative study building on an earlier brief conducted in 2018. According to the report, this study “builds on the findings from the earlier brief to explore the unique challenges that rural communities in the U.S. face in addressing youth homelessness, the ways they are responding to those challenges, and opportunities to strengthen rural service delivery models.” The study was conducted using seven focus groups of young adults and others from five rural regions with various amounts of services and national and state stakeholders. This report contains four major findings from the group and recommendations on how to improve those areas.
The first reporting from the group was identifying youth experiencing or at risk for homelessness. The number of youth experiencing homelessness is underestimated due to the invisibility of rural homelessness, lack of community awareness, stigma, and distrust of public systems. One young adult stakeholder said, “Even though I was dealing with all this hardship, it took such an effort to like realize that I was indeed homeless and that, you know, I did indeed need help.” Recommendations include:
- Support the use of alternative methods to identify and count youth experiencing homelessness, such as universal screening, administrative data linkages, and representative surveys.
- Increase rural schools’ capacity to identify youth and raise awareness by funding trainings and devoting additional staff time to youth homelessness.
The second area focused on providing services and supports. It was reported that rural areas have insufficient resources to support youth that are spread out over a vast area. Resource gaps include transportation and technology, housing programs and resources, mental health and addiction services, and safe spaces where youth can access system navigation support, education, career, and youth development opportunities. Recommendations include:
- Provide flexible funding to all communities to ensure that youth in every part of the country have access to coordinated services and supports.
- Support the development and rigorous evaluation of innovative programs for supporting dispersed youth.
- Provide guidance to help youth and their informal supporters engage in safe, legal, and supportive relationships.
- Rewrite state laws to help formalize arrangements, such as by allowing unaccompanied minors to consent to their own shelter.
The third area concerned equity and inclusion, specifically youth experiencing racism from rural public systems, including law enforcement, education, and child welfare systems. A young adult stakeholder said, “It is more common that White people get the help that they need more often, because systems are more likely to handle them, and believe them, but when a Black student or other students of color come forward, they are less likely to want to help them because they want to blame them for their situation.” Tribal nations reported a lack of funding to develop strategies for addressing homelessness. A lack of access to supports for rural LGBTQIA youth was reported from all types of stakeholders. Recommendations for this issue are:
- Explicitly fund strategies to dismantle systemic racism in rural public systems and better measure equity and inclusion.
- Fund the participation of Tribal nations and marginalized communities in rural youth homelessness conversations.
- Fund rural LGBTQIA-affirming housing programs, mental health services, and flexible supports, and connect rural youth to broader LGBTQIA communities.
The last area focused on collaboration because rural agencies are often overburdened and struggle to build partnerships. It was reported that federal funding at the community level helps to better leverage resources and facilitates more collaborative partnerships across multiple systems. There are still geographic, technological, and funding barriers to engaging in collaboration with youth. Recommendations are:
- Target funding to communities, as opposed to individual agencies, to support the development of community-driven collaborative approaches.
- Require and provide explicit funding and effective technical assistance for rural youth action boards (YABs) with meaningful roles and influence, and ensure rural areas are represented on regional and state YABs.