Helping the Rural Homeless Find Permanent Housing

by Candi Helseth

Peggy Palmer joined the ranks of homeless Americans in 2007 when a flood destroyed her home in Neodesha, Kan. Palmer couldn’t get flood insurance so there was no insurance to cover the loss, and she didn’t make enough money to repair her home. She moved to Hutchinson, a larger community of about 16,000, to live in temporary shelter housing provided by New Beginnings, a nonprofit agency that coordinates housing needs for near-homeless and homeless people. Now Palmer’s participation in Interfaith Housing & Community Services’ (IHS) Individual Development Account (IDA) Program in Hutchinson has put her back on track to buy a home.

Peggy Palmer

Peggy Palmer, who became homeless after a flood, is saving to buy a new home through an Interfaith Housing Services program in Hutchinson, Kan.

IDA, which IHS began offering in 2008 and is currently one of its five housing solution programs, helped Palmer learn life skills and financial management techniques to achieve long-term financial stability. IDA participants must follow a budget and establish savings accounts to buy or repair a house, or pursue education or job skills training. IHS matches every dollar saved by an IDA accountholder with two dollars from the IDA fund. Palmer got a job at $9 an hour in Hutchinson and lived in shelter housing for a year before moving into New Beginnings’ transitional housing program, where she pays rent based on her income level.

“I would recommend these services to anyone,” Palmer said. “I’ll use what I’ve learned forever and with what I have saved, I will be able to start looking for a house this summer.”

Rural homelessness, like urban homelessness, is the result of poverty and a lack of affordable housing, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). The most recent (2005) research showed that one in five nonmetro counties is classified as high poverty (poverty rate of 20 percent or more), compared to only one in 20 metro counties, said NCH Executive Director Neil Donovan. Rural residential histories reveal that structural housing problems jeopardize health or safety, forcing families out of their homes. Limited availability of rural rental properties often forces them to take housing they ultimately can’t afford long-term. Then they become homeless again.

IHS helps rural families stay in their homes by providing resources to keep the homes livable—fixing roofs, building ramps to meet needs of a disabled family member, etc. IHS also rehabilitates dilapidated vacant properties to convert them to transitional housing.

“A lot of rural people we assist are homeless because of emergency situations,” said IHS Director of Development Emily Hurst. “They don’t have the means to change their situation. By helping them stay in their home or get into another home, we can help prevent them from becoming chronically homeless.”

IHS also works with IDA participants to ensure that they have the knowledge and skills to stay in the homes they purchase. Participants set goals and learn ways to live more economically, from preparing healthy low-cost meals to finding better jobs. Weekly educational classes, ongoing counseling and sticking to a planned budget are mandatory. Thirty-eight clients have completed the program, which is funded through private donations and state tax credits. Hurst said the program has been such a success that Kansas state executives are examining funding methods to expand it statewide.

“The IDA program not only changes the future for the households but for the local economy as well,” Hurst said. “Instead of depending on public resources for rent and food, they’re learning to become financially stable rather than draining the local economy.”

Rural Ohio, with 112 emergency shelters, 64 transitional housing programs and 70 permanent supportive housing programs, is also successfully meeting emergency and long-term needs for homeless residents. In 2005, 17 rural Ohio counties began working with the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the Osteopathic Heritage Foundations to end homelessness by providing transitional and permanent housing through the RHISCO (Rural Homeless Initiative of Southeast and Central Ohio) Project. NCH has lauded RHISCO as a model “leading to new insights and solutions to rural homelessness.”

Jonda Clemings

Jonda Clemings, Rural Housing Program Coordinator with the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Columbus, Ohio, says that supportive housing is a long-term solution to homelessness.

“Of 88 counties in Ohio, 80 are primarily rural and 54 of those already have a higher than national average for poverty rate and with the current economy, foreclosures are increasing,” said Jonda Clemings, Rural Housing Program Coordinator with the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Columbus, OH. “We are trying to prevent these people from becoming homeless or if they are, to acclimate them back into the community as quickly as possible. Supportive housing is a long-term solution that gives homeless people a place to live while learning to take charge of their lives.”

Using Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding, the Coalition provided training and technical assistance for the prevention and rapid re-housing program, which places individuals and families in affordable housing. They also receive social service referrals, transportation to job interviews, access to medical care, education on budgeting and lifestyle issues, and other services.

“The primary emphasis is job training and getting residents back into the work force,” Clemings said. “If they’re working, they pay about 30 percent of their adjusted incomes to live in affordable housing. Many have major disabilities or are dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues. In those cases, we try to address those things first by getting them treatment.”

Each county sets eligibility standards. Types of supportive housing vary greatly, depending on community size and availability. Demand has been high and some areas have waiting lists, Clemings said.

“As with everything in rural areas, there’s not enough staff or sufficient financial resources to do it all,” Clemings said. “But we need to start somewhere and do what we can as efficiently as possible. Stable, permanent housing is a primary key in ending homelessness.”

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