Rural Issues and Homelessness

The Rural Issues and Homelessness project was a secondary analysis of focus group and individual interview data collected during a five year Community University Research Alliance (CURA) on Housing & Mental Health. The CURA was conducted in London, Ontario, Canada, a mid-sized city, and its surrounding rural communities. The purpose of the secondary analysis was to provide a better understanding of the differences between people who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness, in rural and urban settings. Although 31.4% of the Canadian population lives in rural areas, most of the Canadian research on homelessness is conducted in large urban centres. Policy and services have been structured around available research and, therefore, may not be congruent with the needs of persons living in rural settings


What Were the Objectives?

  • To identify housing and homelessness described by shelter focus group participants related to rural issues compared to urban issues.
  • To examine similarities and differences in housing preferences, current housing, use of services, quality of life, severity of illness, health status and social supports between interviewees living in rural compared to urban settings.
  • To identify similarities and differences found in this Southern Ontario sample compared to those described in the literature.
  • To identify homelessness and housing policy implications based on rural-urban issues.

1. Secondary analysis of large data set:

The CURA conducted detailed interviews with approximately 300 individuals every year for each of 5 years. The sample was annually stratified by gender (150 of males and females were interviewed each year) and by housing type (interviews were conducted with residents in shelters, group homes, transitional housing, and independent living as well as the homeless). The individuals in this community sample had a history of mental illness. Participants were asked whether they had relocated from a rural community to an urban centre to access services. The instruments that were used include:

  • Lehman Quality of Life scale
  • Housing History Form
  • Consumer Housing Preference Survey Instrument
  • Colorado Client Assessment Record
  • Utilization of Health and Social Services
  • Childhood Trauma Questionnaire
  • Personal Resource Questionnaire

Comparisons of symptom severity, quality of life and housing preference were run for urban and rural participants. The few significant differences were telling: rural participants reported lower quality of life, a preference for living in their own homes with their spouses, and those that had relocated to urban areas were more likely to live in shelters.

2. Secondary analysis of focus groups:

Focus group data was collected from key stakeholders during the same 5 year period. Consumers, family members, care providers, landlords and other stakeholders participated in the interviews. The data from the focus groups was examined for discussions related to place. Common issues identified by all stakeholders included limited access to services, fewer special programs and difficulties with transportation. Many left rural communities for the shelters, housing and other services available in cities.

Key Findings:

  • Analysis of quantitative data revealed that people from rural communities moved to urban centers for mental health services, health services, and employment
  • The most notable primary pscyhiatric disorders were schizophrenia, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders
  • Findings also revealed that lack of transporation was an issue for those living in rural communities, so mobile services may be more effective
  • Shifting the responsibility of administering social housing to the province may make public housing more affordable since the municipal tax base is small
  • The limited services available to those living in rural communities focused on crisis, not prevention
  • However, many individuals were focused to uproot from their communities due to lack of resources
  • For many people, they felt like they were losing ground faster than they were gaining

  • Implications:

    One of the major advantages the study conferred on decision makers is that it revealed to them what services are lacking in rural communities and how important they are to the rural homeless population. Many individuals in our focus groups reported that they and those they know relocate to the city to access services. If the provision of more services can stem the flow of homeless people to cities, the rural population will decline less rapidly and cities will be better able to address the many problems that they already have. A better understanding of homelessness from a rural perspective, and in contrast to an urban one, will allow decision makers and clinicians to better address the needs of all homeless people in Canada.