Two recent efforts highlight the growth of homelessness in America, and the important efforts being made to combat this problem. A February report found that the growth rate of student homelessness in rural areas is almost four times greater than the national increase of all homeless students in the U.S. And in light of the growing problem of homelessness, new legislation has been introduced that proposes substantial funding for programs and services for those experiencing homelessness.
In April, the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness (ICPH) published a report that the number of students experiencing homelessness in rural areas grew by 11%, compared to the 3% growth of all homeless students throughout the country. Currently, one in eight homeless students live in rural areas, representing more than 162,000 students. The report analyzed data of homeless public school students between the 2013-14 and 2016-17 school years.
There was growth in the number of rural homeless students in 38 states, while 10 states saw a decline. One striking finding is that among the 20 states that had declines in their total student population, 15 had an increase in the number of homeless students. Nine of these states had increases in homeless rural students of more than 10% from 2013-2017. In 12 states the proportion of homeless students in rural areas was greater that the proportion of all students in rural areas. The most extreme case was West Virginia. Rural students are 35% of all students in West Virginia, but they make up 53% of all homeless students.
Students homeless in rural areas are less likely to sleep in shelters. Instead, they are most likely to be doubled up with others. In rural areas, 8% of homeless students used shelters, while 15% of homeless students in cities, suburbs and towns used shelters. The number of homeless students staying in hotels or motels increased significantly between the 2013-14 and 2016-17 school years, rising by 47%.
Homeless students in rural areas have fewer resources to help them than those in non-rural areas. They are less likely to live in school districts that receive federal funding to prevent homelessness, 42% compared with 67% of homeless students in non-rural areas. Eight states did not allocate any federal homeless assistance grants to any rural districts.
Rural areas also have more limited services. Travel distance and lack of connectivity make getting basic services more difficult. While 6% of children in families below the poverty line lack health insurance in non-rural districts, 9% of children in rural districts do not have health coverage. Rural America also suffers from a digital divide. In 2017, 12% of rural households lacked a computer or smartphone, and 21% had no internet connection in the home. Among families making less than $20,000 a year, 48% in rural areas had no internet access compared with 39% in non-rural areas.
Although homelessness has increased over the last couple of years, measures to increase the federal response are now being advanced in the House of Representatives under Democratic party control. The Ending Homelessness Act of 2019 was introduced in March by Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA). The bill proposes $13.27 billion in funding over five years to address homelessness through several programs. The funding will support the creation of 410,000 new units for people experiencing homelessness.
The legislation will authorize $5 billion for McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants. These grants will create 85,000 new permanent transitional housing units. They can also be used for other activities under the McKinney-Vento Act, which include rapid rehousing and shelters. The legislation also calls for $5 billion over five years for special purpose Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers. These funds will provide roughly 300,000 rental assistance vouchers with a preference to serve people experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless.
The Ending Homelessness Act will also provide more funding to develop affordable rental housing and provide outreach to connect homeless people with shelter and services. It authorizes $1.05 billion in mandatory appropriations for the national Housing Trust Fund. This will create 25,000 new rental units in the first five years affordable to households with extremely low incomes. The legislation also provides $500 million for outreach. These funds will go to state and local jurisdictions on a competitive basis. The funds will support case management and social services for persons who are homeless or formerly homeless. The bill also provides $20 million to help states and local jurisdictions better integrate healthcare and housing initiatives.
In addition to the funding, the bill permanently reauthorizes the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). The USICH is charged with coordination between all the federal agencies that serve homeless persons. The Trump administration has proposed cutting funding for USICH in each of its budget proposals. The Ending Homelessness Act also classifies all of the proposed spending as an “emergency requirement.” This means that these programs must continue to operate even if there is a government shutdown.
The Ending Homelessness Act was originally introduced in the last Congress, when Republicans controlled the House of Representatives and it had no chance of being moved out of committee. Now that Democrats control the House, it is likely that the House of Representatives will take it up for a vote this year. However, its hopes of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate are slim and President Trump would likely veto such a measure if it reached his desk. It is still important to let your members of Congress know that you support more funding to end homelessness. The 2020 election is coming up fast, which gives voter support for an issue more weight with lawmakers.