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Rural homelessness increases exponentially in 2021

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The number of individuals facing homelessness in rural areas increased significantly in the past year. This issue is made worse by the pandemic and a lack of data. 

Experts convened to discuss the impact of the pandemic on those facing homelessness in rural areas earlier this month as part of the Rural Health Summit.

During this summit, Amy Bashiti with the Illinois Housing Development Authority, Karin Zosel with the Affordable Assisted Living Coalition and Merridith Montgomery with the Supportive Housing Providers Association spoke on the issues impacting the state’s rural homeless community.

Bashiti said one of the main problems her department faces when trying to combat the effects of homelessness in rural areas is a lack of timeliness when it comes to data. Bashiti said her department likely won’t receive the 2020 census data until January of 2022.

Zosel said her department also faces challenges related to data collection and those challenges have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

From the data she does have, Zosel said the Affordable Assisted Living Coalition has observed an increase in homelessness and those who are without shelter.

On a normal night in the state of Illinois, 1,431 people were recorded as being homeless in 2021, according to Zosel. This is a 2% increase compared to 2020.

The number of those who are without shelter increased 22% in the state and the chronic population-people who have a disabling condition and suffer from long-term homelessness-increased 34%.

The panel highlighted that some of the factors contributing to homelessness in rural areas include a low amount of rental properties, a challenging and spread-out landscape that makes it difficult to access resources and that the capacity for rural communities is much lower to get funding from the government to implement assistance systems.

Dr. Linda Baker, a legislative liaison with the governor’s office, moderated the event and shared policy recommendations the governor’s office hopes to implement.

“One is to create an Illinois rural housing solutions taskforce to commission a set of recommendations to better collect housing data, and develop housing need assessments, specifically for rural communities,” Baker said. “Housing is the solution to homelessness, but again, data drives decision making.”

Another recommendation was to encourage hospitals and local public health departments to use Community Health Needs Assessments and I-PLAN to study and address housing and other social determinants to health.

“And then to pilot the creation of a rural community care center, or community centers to encourage a system of linking health care and housing to other social services needs, again, service integration, understanding that housing issues cannot be resolved on their own,” Baker said. “That means it takes a team of individuals working together to resolve the homelessness issue.”

Additionally, Baker suggested working with the Illinois Senate to develop a housing committee similar to the one that exists in the Illinois House.

Montgomery mentioned that those who have been homeless for an extended period of time begin to distrust assistance systems and a housing first approach to combating homelessness is critical.



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Kallie Cox is a general assignments reporter for The Southern with interests in political science, crime and courts, immigration, and social justice. Kallie is a SIU graduate and joined the newsroom staff in 2021.

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