Tackling homelessness in rural communities

Tackling homelessness in rural communities

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a once-in-a-generation effort across the nation to house people sleeping rough. The Everybody In initiative has shown what can be achieved with concerted action across national government, local authorities and the voluntary sector. But further action, including to tackle rural homelessness, is needed if the government is to meet its manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping by 2024.

Man sat down on ground crouched over bags
"Progress in this area starts with raising awareness of the problem and drawing attention to the real-world examples." - Rory Weal, Fellow

Homelessness is not something often associated with the UK’s countryside. To most people, homelessness is experienced in the urban metropolis, not in sleepy villages. This is partly due to the more hidden nature of homelessness in rural communities, as people often sleep rough in less visible settings (such as in the woods or in cars) or are more likely to be sofa-surfing. The result is that the experiences of people facing rural homelessness have too often been ignored, both in policy responses and in public understanding.

Before the pandemic, levels of rough sleeping in rural communities had been rising year on year, up by 65% since 2010. In 2020, while we have seen great successes overall in reducing rough sleeping through Everybody In, many rural areas appear not to have experienced the same levels of progress.

While the latest official data released in February suggests an almost 50% decrease in the number of people sleeping rough nationally, some local areas have in fact seen a rise in levels of rough sleeping. Three of the ten areas with the largest rises in levels of rough sleeping since the pandemic hit are classified as ‘largely rural’.

It is too soon to say what has driven this, or to compare rural and urban areas across the board, but this may be the result of the more limited service infrastructure and political prioritisation in these areas. What’s more, there is a lack of long-term funding to end rough sleeping for good beyond the pandemic. As we face this critical juncture, it is important to learn lessons from the rest of the world.

A few months before the pandemic hit, I travelled to the USA as part of my Churchill Fellowship. Over the past decade, the USA has seen a sustained reduction in levels of homelessness in multiple rural states and I was keen to find out about their approaches to tackling rural homelessness. One of these states, West Virginia, has seen levels of homelessness fall by more than a third since 2010. There I saw first-hand how adapting outreach services to effectively serve remote communities has been a key part of this.

In Mississippi, I met unlikely advocates for the issue, in the form of the police chief of Elvis’s hometown of Tupelo, and the state’s Republican supreme court justice. Both were convinced of the role of the Housing First approach (which prioritises finding people accommodation before other interventions) to end homelessness, due to effective lobbying from local homeless services. This coalition-building has contributed to an impressive halving of levels of homelessness over a decade in the state.

Three men and a dog sat down on the ground smiling at each other
Rory (left) with a homelessness outreach team in Hattiesburg, Mississippi Download 'Rory Weal_Blog.jpg'

But behind these local successes was active and assertive leadership from central government, often circumventing resistance at the local level, and providing support for rural communities to end homelessness themselves. National strategies, such as Opening Door led by then-President Obama, made a huge difference in driving co-ordinated action. More prescriptive long-term funding streams for ‘best practice’ programmes, such as Permanent Supportive Housing and Housing First, also made particular impacts in rural communities where previous service provision was limited.

Reflecting on what we could learn in the UK from these approaches, my Fellowship report included multiple recommendations such as:

  • Central government should develop a new cross-government strategy that is truly national in scope, launched by the Prime Minister, as President Obama did in 2010. This should include long-term investment in homelessness services, ensuring rural communities get a fair share of funding to deliver services tailored to local needs.
  • Local authorities in rural areas should designate a lead forum to take strategic leadership for homelessness within their area (for example, the Health and Wellbeing Board or the non-statutory homelessness forum) and for case management oversight, with a non-profit as lead agency. Outreach services should be commissioned in all communities as a first step, based on learning from effective models in the USA.

Progress in this area starts with raising awareness of the problem and drawing attention to the real-world examples of how rural homelessness is already being successfully tackled. To help achieve this I organised a webinar with HomelessLink to bring together those engaged in the issue in the UK, and hear from Hannah Maharrey, who leads work to tackle homelessness in rural Mississippi. Since then, there has been coverage of my Fellowship report in the Big Issue, and the work of others such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England has received significant coverage highlighting the impacts of wider forms of homelessness on rural communities.

My hope is that growing recognition of this issue prompts serious consideration from government. There are positive signs from across the Atlantic on this front, where significant further funding for tackling homelessness has been made available through Congress’ recent stimulus package. The UK Government should follow suit if it is to deliver its manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping by 2024, and ensure all communities, including rural ones, have the resources and policy interventions in place to ensure no one is without a place to call home.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


Newsletter Sign Up