Why is rural homelessness different?
Homelessness: it's not the first thing that comes to mind when we think about Canada's rural and remote communities. Our ideas about rurality are often infused with images of idyllic countryside landscapes and close-knit communities. Canada's pioneer past adds an additional element of self-sufficiency and independent spirit. Nevertheless, housing instability and homelessness are emerging as prevalent and even increasing social challenges across Canada's rural communities.
In a study of 22 Canadian rural communities, Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff and myself researched the dynamics behind rural homelessness and tried to discern what exactly makes it distinct from its urban (and much more visible) counterpart.
So, what's so different about rural homelessness?
1. An invisible, yet diverse and prevalent issue.
Every community we talked to reported homelessness to be a challenge - whether it had a population of 500, 5,000, or 15,000. But, those experiencing homelessness were most likely to be hidden: couch surfing, living in makeshift shelter, and camping out were commonly reported. Though hidden, rural homelessness is very diverse: it reaches across the lifespan to children, youth, and seniors; it's experienced by women and men alike, newcomers and Aboriginal people; it's experienced by low income individuals with and without addiction or mental health issues, or facing domestic violence. Of course, the total numbers of homeless are much lower in small communities - which make the issue less visible as well. This impacts public recognition and action to address the issue. When you don't see homelessness, it's easier to deny it exists and it's easier to push it to the bottom of the community agenda.
2. A strained housing and service infrastructure.
Bigger communities often note the lack of affordable housing and essential supports (mental health, addictions, domestic violence services, etc.) to be a major challenge in addressing homelessness. In rural centres, this issue is even more acute. There simply isn't enough funding and service capacity to offer diverse supports needed. When it comes to assisting homeless persons with complex addictions and mental health issues, these communities have to point people to move to larger centres. Many rural communities don't have formal rental sectors, never mind affordable housing stock. Transportation, especially in remote communities, complicate access further - some towns simply don't have any public transportation whatsoever; some are only reachable by propeller plane.
3. Keenly felt economic shifts.
Because of these dynamics, when major economic shifts occur, such as a new recreation resort opening or oil and gas activity, a rural community's service and housing infrastructure is much less elastic to mitigate these changes. This is why we hear of reports of spikes in homelessness in communities like Estevan, SK or Kitimat, BC where economic activity has spurred housing costs to spike, pricing out lower income households. With the opportunity of jobs, migration to these communities increases - further straining services and housing. When social infrastructure isn't planned and delivered in a coordinated fashion with economic development, strain on vulnerable rural populations can result in housing instability and homelessness: even street homelessness.
4. The 'migration solution' .
One of the strategies used by those who experience homelessness in rural areas is migration to nearby communities or larger cities with better housing, services, employment and education opportunities. In fact, they are encouraged to relocate by their families and friends and support workers; community leaders and public opinion may push "problem individuals" out as well. This is certainly the case for victims of domestic violence who have little choice to escape abusive situations in small communities. Because larger centres also offer more "anonymity" for those seeking help, migration is often seen as a viable solution. Of course, this requires uprooting from one's home community and losing important social ties and connections. Aboriginal migration impacts homelessness in rural communities significantly, particularly where proximity to Aboriginal communities exists and where rural centres act as access points to services and opportunities. This was particularly evident in the case of Aboriginal women, youth and children fleeing violence who sought support in rural communities with available services and shelters.
5. When disasters hit.
In the past few years, we have witnessed and experienced major weather events and natural disasters across the country. Whether the forest fires, floods, or storms, when disasters hit, vulnerable populations feel the effects keenly - especially in rural communities. The 2011 Alberta Slave Lake fire resulted in massive housing loss and 30% of the population is still without homes in 2014. The Alberta floods of 2013 severely impacted Aboriginal reserves of the Stoney and Siksika First Nations, further exacerbating already dire housing conditions in Morley, Eden Valley, and Siksika. This points to the importance of considering homelessness in future planning and emergency preparedness work.
Because of the unique circumstances at play, solutions specific to rural homelessness need to be developed that account for these local dynamics. Approaches need to be developed that take on a regional lens as well: accounting for migration, but not solely relying on it as a solution. With leadership, innovation, and strategic use of resources, ending homelessness in rural communities is absolutely possible. Rural Canada is poised to take a leadership role driving the national agenda on homelessness and social innovation.
To read more about proposed solutions to rural homelessness, read our national report and Alberta's Rural Homelessness report. Also see Steven Gaetz' blog on the feasibility of Housing First in rural communities.
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