National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families

Rural Youth Homelessness in America

Teenage boy standing in field

Overview of Rural Homeless Youth

Homelessness is often perceived to be a problem only for large cities, and youth homelessness is no different. However, the reality is rural youth experience homelessness at nearly the same rate as their urban peers. Rural homeless youth also contend with unique barriers to social services, including a lack of transportation and shelters and, for parenting youth, fewer childcare options. For service providers and funders, this means that rural homeless youth present unique challenges and service needs.

A 2018 Chapin Hall and Voices of Youth Count brief on rural youth homelessness found that 9.2% of young adults (ages 18 to 25) in predominantly rural counties (defined as a county in which at least half of the population lives outside of an urban area) reported some type of homelessness, compared to 9.6% percent of young adults in predominantly urban counties. Among adolescents ages 13 to 17, household prevalence of some form of homelessness was 4.4% in rural and 4.2% in urban counties. In other words, homelessness affects youth at similar levels regardless of where they live.  

Youth access to services varies widely according to geography. Homeless youth in rural counties may have to cover larger distances to connect with providers and have fewer public transportation options than in urban areas. In many cases, they even face limited infrastructure, including dirt roads or unpassable routes. This may explain why homeless youth in rural areas are twice as likely to couch surf on a given night. They are also less likely to have access to shelter: Chapin Hall found that half of youth in large counties — meaning those that are more densely populated — reported that they were sheltered, compared to only 23 percent of youth in small counties. Runaway and homeless youth in rural areas have fewer shelter options and fewer ways to get to them.

Rural economic conditions can also impact the lives of at-risk youth. Poverty rates and school dropout rates are higher in rural areas than urban ones, which is reflected in youth experiencing homelessness: 57 percent of people ages 16 to 24 in rural areas who are homeless were unemployed and not in school, compared to 46 percent of the same demographic in urban areas.

Federal Programs and Initiatives

To account for the differences in needs and access to services and resources that homeless rural youth have to deal with, the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB)  established the three-year Rural Host Homes Demonstration Project in 2008. This project was created to expand the Basic Center Program  and improve services for homeless youth in rural areas that lack shelters. Grantees used the funds to house rural homeless youth in the homes of community members, called “host homes.” Host homes, as opposed to standalone shelters or group houses, allow rural communities to provide housing for young people without building new shelters or group houses or hiring new staff.

FYSB also funded six sites under the Support Systems for Rural Homeless Youth (SSRHY) Demonstration Projects from 2008 to 2015. These projects were aimed at rural youth ages 16 to 21 who were “approaching independence” and who lacked family or community support. The six states that received funds were able to create community centers, work-readiness workshops, and other spaces and events dedicated to serving at-risk youth; develop public service announcements to raise awareness of youth homelessness; and implement transitional living programs.

Another federal program, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program began in 2016 and requires a certain portion of rural grantees. In the FY2018 funding round, which totaled $75 million, 8 of the 23 grantee communities were required to be in rural areas. The program goal is to help communities prevent and end homelessness among youth ages 12 to 24.

The Reality of Rural Homeless Youth

One potential barrier to helping rural homeless youth is the difficulty of accurately determining how many there are.  A research review from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council noted that most methods for quantifying homeless populations involve counting at homeless service areas, including shelters, which could lead to an undercount of rural homeless youth who have fewer services to rely on. Additionally, rural jurisdictions cover more square miles, making an accurate count more difficult, and potentially leading to even fewer resources than needed.

Rural homeless youth are a significant part of the broader RHY population and experience homelessness or housing insecurity at rates almost equal to those of their urban peers. Their lived experience of homelessness makes it uniquely challenging to meet their needs, but they stand to benefit from evidence-informed efforts to help them secure stable housing, acquire the skills and habits to find and hold a job, and achieve independence.

About RHYi Issue Briefs

Issue Briefs, developed by the National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families, provide information about runaway and homeless youth and the issues that affect them.