We often think of homelessness as an issue limited to big cities. In reality, homelessness does not discriminate, and occurs in all geographic contexts – from urban centres, to the suburbs, and in rural regions.

Homelessness in rural regions often goes unnoticed because it is largely “hidden”, unlike the more visible and broadly-researched street homelessness in urban centres. Fortunately, more and more research is being done in these regions. For instance, PiT Counts in Yellowknife and Brandon have been successful in enumerating and surveying the service needs of the local homeless population to inform systems planning in their respective regions. Drawing on research done to date, this blog post will discuss experiences of rural homelessness.

Rural Homelessness in Canada

A 2011 report from the County of Wellington, Ont. showed:

  • The majority of interviewed individuals experiencing homelessness were very reluctant to self-identify as “homeless,” even if they were living in a car or couch surfing.
  • Homelessness in rural settings continues to go under the radar, and is misunderstood as a social issue that only affects big cities.
  • Lack of recognition for the existence of homelessness in rural communities contributes to the lack of funding and development in rural settings.
  • Many rural residents are reluctant to access emergency shelters in the city: Only 5-6% of those who use Guelph shelters are residents who come from Wellington county, Ont.

1. Access and relevance of services and resources

In larger cities, it is more common to find individuals “sleeping rough” on the streets, panhandling, or relying on the available social services and supports nearby. Due to a smaller population size and the nature of hidden homelessness in rural regions, services are scarce. What’s more, funding towards building much needed social infrastructure is significantly lacking, as government allocated resources are often population-based. This means that funding for social services are usually concentrated to major urban centres.

Due to this lack of services, many people who are homeless in rural communities rely more on informal networks such as couch surfing with family and friends or look to neighbours for help. In cases of domestic violence that disproportionately affect women and children, emergency shelters are often inaccessible to those needing to flee unsafe situations, forcing individuals to return to an abusive partner for shelter.

In addition to a lack of services overall, services catered to marginalized populations (e.g. LGBTQ2S people, Indigenous Peoples, women) and their distinct lived experiences are essentially non-existent. Rural homelessness disproportionately affects women and children. On any given night in Canada, 3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters because it isn't safe at home. The rate of violent crime against women in Nunavut in 2011 was nearly 13 times higher than the rate for Canada.

2. Indigenous Peoples

More than 50% of Indigenous Peoples live in metropolitan regions, and yet Indigenous Peoples still make up the largest share  of the population of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Although the extent to which Indigenous Peoples experience homelessness in rural regions is unknown, we do know that Indigenous Peoples experience homelessness across Canada disproportionate to their population size.

For Indigenous populations experiencing homelessness in rural regions, not only are services scarce, but also often fail to provide a culturally safe space. One reason, among several, explaining the increased migration of Indigenous Peoples from rural to urban regions is the lack of culturally safe services and housing available locally.

According to the Definition of Indigenous Homelessness, what further exacerbates migration from rural to urban regions, thus separation from family and familiar surroundings, are structural and systems factors. These include: crumbling infrastructure due to a lack of government investment in building homes specifically for Indigenous Peoples, racism and discrimination among landlords and service providers (although this is also an issue in urban centres), and irrelevant and inadequate employment opportunities, to name a few.

 

“…an Inuit from Resolute Bay may want to procure identification. to work and access education for a planned move to Ottawa, but does not know what an identity clinic is, what forms to fll out, what ID is needed to obtain work or where to acquire such forms for that ID, and may not even speak English or French to be able to fill out the forms or communicate with state representatives.”

Excerpt from the Definition of Indigenous Homelessness – J. Thistle 2017

3. Transportation

Another challenge is access to transportation. To access resources such as food banks, emergency shelters, and health services, people experiencing homelessness in rural areas may have to travel far distances due to the sparse geographic layout. Because of this, transportation can become a barrier for those without cars in rural settings. Public transportation systems can also be unreliable in rural regions, making the process of travelling far for resources unrealistic.

4. Lack of Privacy

The small community-feel of some rural areas can help foster close social ties, while also implicating a lack of privacy. Due to a smaller population size, those who live in rural areas are more likely to know who is experiencing homelessness, resulting in stigmatization. This is problematic as stigma often acts as a barrier to obtaining housing. For instance, landlords may be reluctant to rent to individuals experiencing or who have experienced homelessness.

5. Rural Economy and Housing

As mentioned, rural regions have few housing options available. This scarcity is compounded by an influx of migrating workers and tourists to rural regions, contributing to an increase in housing prices. As a result, locals at a lower income level are frequently left with no other option than to settle for houses that are unfit for human habitation.

The term relative homelessness has been used to describe individuals who are housed but who reside in substandard shelter (e.g. mould, poor heating, no insulation), and/or who may be at risk of losing their homes. Due to the inadequacy of their living arrangements, these individuals are considered to be in need of core housing.

The types of jobs that rural economies tend to rely on also differ from those found in the city. At times of economic boom, often in manufacturing and oil jobs, many rural towns experience a rush of migrant workers, thus increasing the demand for housing. For instance, in 2011, Estevan, Saskatchewan saw a boom in their oil and gas industry, resulting in an influx of economic migrants. Due to the existing lack of housing, many have been forced to sleep rough in cars or in public spaces. Similarly, in Revelstoke, B.C., individuals with lower incomes have been forced into trailers unsafe for habitation as a result of landlords renting out property to higher paying tourists in the region.

Here are some statics on core housing and low-income for rural communities:

Pointe-à-la-Croix, Quebec

Population: 1,445

Low income: 32%

Core housing need: 21%

 

Steinbach, Manitoba

Population: 13,524

Low income: 19%

Core housing need: 22%

New Glasgow, Nova Scotia

 
Population: 9,562

Low income:18%

Core housing need: 19%

Wellington County, Ontario

 

Population: 11,477

Low income: 15%

Core housing need: 22%

 

Preventing and addressing rural homelessness

These are some of the ways that homelessness can be prevented in rural areas:

1. Transportation

More volunteer driver programs such as the Wellington Transportation Services, made possible by volunteers and funded by the County of Wellington, are a way to address the challenges of accessing remote services in rural communities.

2. Privacy

Creating shared spaces in rural communities can address the privacy issues and consequential marginalization faced by people experiencing homelessness in many tight-knit rural areas. This may help to alleviate the discrimination those experiencing homelessness encounter when accessing resources. Other benefits include such the ability to develop social networks, and greater safety in the community.

3. Access to Resources and Services

Alternative shelter programs such as respite accommodation or host homes are options helpful in diverting youth from street homelessness, while also temporarily connecting them to a support system. These shelter options are typically offered by volunteers or paid individuals. Individuals experiencing homelessness are provided with temporary shelter and other resources as part of these programs. For example, the NightStop program connects Canadian youth in crisis with a verified volunteer who provides safe shelter on a night-to-night basis.

4. Services that Target Specific Populations

Creating services specifically tailored to populations such as women, families, Indigenous Peoples, newcomers, LGBTQ2S, and/or veterans are necessary in addressing homelessness for marginalized individuals in rural regions. For example, the Repairing the Holes in the Net action research project sought to understand the barriers northern women who are homeless or marginally housed, and who face mental health and substance use concerns. Women experiencing homelessness or who were marginally housed in Whitehorse, Yukon, Yellowknife, N.W.T., and Iqaluit, Nunavut faced 4 interconnected challenges including: unresolved trauma, poverty and social exclusion, an inability to find and maintain housing, and ineffective services. The women in the study suggested a number of changes at each of these levels such as:

Treatment that was trauma-specific and that would get to the root cause of their substance use problems, a daily living allowance, rent geared to income and changes in services hours on weekends and evenings for easier access. The results of the study went on to inform and tailor service provision catered to the women surveyed.

 

In closing

Despite a lack of research on the nature of homelessness in rural regions, from the information we do know, we know that more must be done. Solutions such as: services specifically tailored to marginalized populations; affordable, accessible, and safe housing; reliable and accessible transportation services, and; alternative shelters and rural Housing First programs are desperately needed in the region. Due to the distinct nature of rural homelessness discussed, more research is needed to cater solutions relevant to the experience of homelessness in rural and remote communities.

 

Malaika TaylorCanadian Observatory on Homelessness