Rural Counties Lack Services for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

The first National Estimates report from Chapin Hall’s Voices of Youth Count initiative showed that about 1 in 10 young adults, and 1 in 30 teens, experience some form of homelessness within a 12-month period. New analysis shows that these rates are consistent in rural parts of the country. These are the first reliable national data that show prevalence and characteristics of youth homelessness in the vast rural areas of the country. While the study found similar rates of homelessness among youth in rural communities, it also found rural communities have unique youth experiences and challenges for service delivery. This research provides critical insights for better-tailored policies and programs to help end youth homelessness in rural America.

What we did

This brief draws on data from multiple research components to provide a holistic perspective on the topic of rural youth homelessness in America. These include a nationally representative, phone-based survey of adults, surveys of youth and service providers in 22 counties, in-depth interviews with youth in five of those counties, and a systematic review of evidence on interventions to prevent and address youth homelessness. The integration of data collected using different methods and representing different perspectives allows for broader and deeper insights on youth homelessness and opportunities for action.

What we found

  • Most rural counties lack services designed specifically for youth experiencing homelessness, forcing young people to go without help or travel long distances to gain support.
  • Rural youth are more likely to be “hidden” in their communities because they often rely on “couch surfing” at friends’ or strangers’ homes, sleeping in vehicles, or staying outdoors.
  • Rural youth find it more difficult than their peers in larger, more urban counties to connect with education and employment opportunities.
  • American Indian and Alaska Native youth show more than double the risk for homelessness as other youth, although most were located outside of rural communities.
  • In rural communities, changes like the collapse of an industry or the emergence of a substance use epidemic can have profoundly destabilizing effects on disadvantaged families, which, in turn, can shape young people’s trajectories into homelessness.

What it means

Youth homelessness is a national challenge that affects rural and urban communities alike. These findings highlight the need to reexamine federal programs and funding to ensure that young people in every part of the country have access, within a reasonable distance, to youth-specific homelessness services, housing options, and supports. Yet, the specific characteristics of rural contexts, and youth experiences of homelessness in these contexts, call for tailored strategies.

Investments by public and private funders are needed to develop and evaluate innovative service delivery models for youth in rural communities. To ensure customized and adequate resources, it may be useful to establish ongoing grant programs and technical assistance to address youth homelessness in rural communities. Further, given the additional hiddenness of youth homelessness in rural areas, shelter- and street-based counts should be supplemented by creative methods to identify and count the full range of youth experiencing homelessness.

Engaging broader public systems (such as schools, child welfare, and justice systems) and services (such as after-school programs and faith-based organizations) to support better identification and service delivery for youth experiencing homelessness is especially important in rural communities, given the common lack of youth-specific homeless service providers in these parts of the country.

Considering the high disproportionality of American Indian and Alaska Native youth among those experiencing homelessness, the federal government should engage tribal nations, organizations, and young people to devise concrete, culturally sensitive federal policy strategies for both rural and urban communities to address this challenge.

Youth Homelessness in Rural America