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Housing

Rural homelessness: How we can help ‘hidden’ rough sleepers

People in rural communities are affected by homelessness in the same way as those in urban areas, what should the government be doing to help?

Homelessness isn’t the first thing which springs to mind when you think of the countryside. Rural living usually conjures up images of pretty villages, green space, open-air and blue skies. 

But charities warn the number of people rough sleeping in rural areas is rising and are calling on the Government to urgently increase investment and provide more affordable housing for people in these communities. 

According to St Mungo’s, rough sleeping in rural communities has risen 65 per cent since 2010 but its “invisible nature” means a lack of attention from Government policy.  

Rural homelessness is often described as a “hidden”, where many cases go undetected with people likely to sleep in countryside locations like outhouses, tents, and other makeshift shelters

Rory Weal, a Churchill Fellow who conducted research on rural homelessness in the United States, told the Big Issue the coronavirus crisis presented a “golden opportunity” to tackle the problem. This is partly due to the Everyone In initiative which provided accommodation for 15,000 rough sleepers at the start of the pandemic, allowing many to access homelessness services for the first time. 

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“Everyone In offers us the proof that with the right resources everybody can be housed,” Weal said. 

“Even though [Everyone In] was only for a short period of time, it shows the vast majority of people rough sleeping can come off the streets with the right accommodation and we can end their homelessness.” 

But crucially, Weal said, this funding was short term, and the Government has confirmed it will not repeat these large scale efforts for the remainder of the pandemic. 

Weal added: “A lot of people have engaged with services, and many for the first time, but we haven’t seen the kinds of action we need in investment in social housing, on increasing the value of housing benefits, and on the kinds of policies we know can help to end homelessness over the longer term. 

“We’re at juncture, and we can decide whether we want to actually continue that progress and end homelessness for good, or whether we want to accept ever rising numbers of people coming onto the streets, both in rural and urban areas.”

Big Issue vendor Craig O’Shea was one of those who was brought off the streets by Everyone In after previously sleeping in his tent in Truro, Cornwall.

He told the Big Issue he didn’t trust services and felt safer outdoors away from people, even if it meant staying exposed to the elements in his own camp.

But through the help of The Big Issue and other local charities, he was able to make a fresh start and “leave his troubles behind”.

Analysis from countryside charity CPRE shows the number of households categorised as homeless in rural local authorities in England rose to 19,975, an increase of 115 per cent from 2017 to 2018. 

CPRE said rural homelessness “continues to soar” and “looks set to get worse” unless the Government invests in well-designed and affordable homes. 

The Big Issue has also explored rural homelessness in the past. Raynor Winn, who was evicted with her husband from her farm and home of 20 years, wrote for the magazine about her experiences. 

“It’s a shock, making the leap from owning your own home and business, to living wild at the edge of the land, homeless, with very little money, where every day is a struggle to just keep moving and your priority is finding food,” she wrote. 

Weal added the causes of rural homelessness were similar to those in urban areas. 

“A lot of people that are living in remote environments, who are living a bit further out of public view, get ignored and forgotten, both as people but also when the Government design policy. 

“Fundamentally it’s about the unaffordability of housing, people not having high enough incomes to stay afloat and pressures in the housing market. 

“These occur in urban and rural settings and are often combined with personal life experiences or life crises that have tipped people over the edge. 

“Once somebody becomes homeless, it can be much harder to get them the right services and the right support in a rural area, simply because those services often don’t exist in the same way.”

Weal travelled to the USA in the Summer of 2019 to study responses to homelessness in rural communities and said the UK Government could learn from the actions of politicians there. 

He added: “I think there becomes a tendency to see homelessness as inevitable, and particularly to see rural homelessness as too challenging or too isolated a problem to be able to significantly reduce it. 

“What I saw [when I went to the US] was that with the right political will, with people who held power prioritising the issue – that was really significant in getting the numbers of people experiencing homelessness down.”

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