202-737-9311 | info@thrivedc.org

Service Deserts - An Explanation of What, Why, and Solutions

Posted on January 4, 2023

When trying to end homelessness, there are so many different programs, services, and organizations vying for funding. There are general best practices on how to approach ending homelessness, but without sufficient funding, organizations have to prioritize how best to tackle the issues they feel they can make a difference on with the limited funding they have. 

One result of this limited funding is that rural areas are often neglected. Big cities often have very large, very visible homeless populations, and they accordingly have many organizations and programs to address these folks’ needs. In addition, because of the visibility, many cities are willing to use their own budget to pitch in and help these organizations provide services to help unhoused people get housing or shelter, so that the city is more attractive to tourists and prospective residents. 

Small towns and rural areas don’t have the large budgets that major cities do–forcing them to rely only on federal funding, their homeless populations are often less visible, and their more dispersed nature means longer distances between service providers. 

This creates service deserts. Adrienne Bush, executive director for the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky, uses the term Service Desert to describe areas that do not have shelters or housing programs. It’s similar to the idea of food deserts, used to describe areas without access to fresh food or grocery stores. 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that of people experiencing homelessness in rural areas, 44% lived unsheltered. Sheltered unhoused people live with friends or family or in supportive housing shelters. Unsheltered people live in cars, parks, on the streets–any place that isn’t designed as housing. Experiencing unsheltered homelessness poses many risks, including: 

  • Barriers to healthcare
  • Reduced access to government benefits (like social security, food stamps)
  • Barriers to employment
  • Lack of places to perform personal hygiene
  • Risk of being arrested for being homeless
  • And more

Without supportive services in rural areas to aid these individuals, they face these barriers alone. Housing is a human right, and those in rural areas deserve equal supportive services to their counterparts in major cities, because supportive services increase self-sufficiency and help end homelessness, both on an individual level and on the grander scale. 

Following up on their findings, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is providing up to $54.5 million in aid to rural housing agencies. This money can be used for permanent housing, supportive services, emergency shelter costs, housing repairs, food and clothing, staff and overhead, and more. These uses are more flexible than previous funds, which will allow organizations to use the funding in the way that they know will best serve their clients, as they are the frontline workers with expertise on what their clients need. 

That flexibility is a really important sign to organizations like Thrive DC. Over the years, we’ve focused more and more on what our clients are telling us as we create and implement strategies to end homelessness. Our clients are experts in their own lives. They have lived experience, and they know what aid would actually be beneficial. So strategies shift, services change, and with that, we need flexible funding to meet these evolving needs. 

This HUD grant for rural service providers opens an opportunity for organizations to better serve rural clients, but it also opens up the door to a future of more flexible funding that meets clients where they are at. Thrive DC looks forward to continuing to serve clients alongside organizations across the country, urban and rural. 

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