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A blue tent in a dark forest

Homelessness in the countryside: a hidden crisis

Published: 24 April 2024

Growing concerns about rough sleeping and homelessness in the countryside prompted work that would make the problem more visible. Housing associations commissioned research to delve into the problem, the causes, and possible solutions. Helen Carr, Professor of Property Law and Social Justice at the Southampton Law School, took on the challenge collaborating with the University of Kent.

Organisations wanted rural homeless to be understood

Austerity measures, COVID-19 and the cost-of-living crisis have exacerbated rural homelessness that is caused by complex and highly localised conditions.

Data analysis from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) shows a 24% increase from 2021 to 2022 in the number of people sleeping rough in rural areas.

Rural homelessness is distinct from urban, and an effective response requires specific policies based on lived experience and local knowledge.

The English Rural Housing Association and organisations working in the countryside wanted the different experience of homelessness outside of urban areas to be understood. They also wanted specific policies to address what they saw as a different problem. So they commissioned research to achieve this, and make the problem impossible to ignore.

Discovering why rural rough sleeping was hidden

Helen and colleagues interviewed more than 150 front-line staff from local authorities and other organisations working with rural homelessness, and more than 40 people including service providers and those experiencing homelessness.

The research revealed that a deep-rooted stigma and lack of focus on rural areas had hidden the issue from the public and policymakers, and without significant national policy changes, rural homelessness was likely to increase significantly in coming years.

Helen said: “People sleeping rough in rural areas have difficulties accessing essential supplies like food and water, transport and support services. There is a rural price premium and specialist services, particularly mental health support, are likely to mean travelling long distances.” 

The report made a number of recommendations, including:

  • to increase affordable housing in rural areas, 
  • more targeted support for rental costs
  • providing flexible, multi-disciplinary prevention services in rural areas
This research on a neglected issue has transformed the policy agenda, demonstrating that even a small project can be effective if it is collaborative and well-focused.
Professor of Property Law & Sc Justice

Raising the profile of rural homelessness

The research has had a significant impact, raising the profile of rural homelessness on the political agenda and the national stage.

The report findings triggered the Minister for Homelessness convening a Parliamentary round table for coalition members, policy leads on homelessness and people with lived experience of rural homelessness. The round table led to meetings with the Office for National Statistics about strategies to uncover hidden homelessness populations, and the DLUHC about the rural homelessness policy and rough sleeper count strategy.

The research has also been presented to the Department for Work and Pensions select committee, been cited in a House of Lords debate on the housing crisis, informed Labour’s policy planning, been shared at the Labour Party Conference, and been presented to the inquiry into the impact of the cost-of-living crisis in rural areas.

Its profile has been raised through national media including the BBC News, BBC Breakfast, Sky News, the One Show, BBC Radio 2, the Today Programme on Radio 4 and The Independent. English Rural’s 'Rural Homelessness count' campaign also achieved over 4 million impressions and a 700% increase in website referrals.

It has also fed into several practitioners’ meetings including National Housing Federation’s Rural Housing Week, South East Homelessness Forum, Homeless Link annual conference and the Welsh Cymorth Cymru conference.

Research set to widen across Europe

The team is hoping that this research can be expanded across Europe. We are already in collaboration with the University of Valencia and the University of Groningen on counting hidden homelessness.

The evidence of this research has formed the basis for an ongoing national campaign #RuralHomelessnessCounts on X, formerly Twitter, that aims:

  • to raise awareness of the issue
  • to develop and advocate solutions
  • to encourage the adoption of evidence-based best practices in rural communities
  • to foster partnerships with local authorities, rural housing associations, and other stakeholders to address rural homelessness

Rural Homelessness Study | University of Southampton

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