Providers of Supportive Services for Veteran Families Face Unique Challenges in Rural Areas

An article in Housing Policy Debate, “‘You Don’t See Them on the Streets of Your Town’: Challenges and Strategies for Serving Unstably Housed Veterans in Rural Areas,” reports that rural homeless services providers face a unique set of problems in assisting unstably housed rural veterans. In interviews, rural providers reported challenges identifying homeless and insecurely housed veterans and providing services in rural areas.

The authors conducted qualitative interviews with 24 Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) providers serving rural areas. SSVF, a program of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) provides case management, temporary financial assistance, linkages to VA health care and benefits, and other services. SSVF providers were chosen because they are often community-based organizations with a long history of providing assistance in their areas. Interviewees represented providers that served exclusively rural areas during FY18. The authors interviewed six SSVF grantees from each of the four census regions. The interviews focused on the organization and structure of the SSVF provider, what homelessness typically looks like in that area, how the SSVF addresses veterans’ housing needs, and barriers to working in a rural setting.

The authors note that the VA has prioritized preventing and ending veteran homelessness since 2009. The HUD-VA Supportive Housing program (HUD-VASH), which provides permanent supportive housing to veterans, has expanded from 10,000 vouchers in 2008 to approximately 90,000 vouchers in 2018. The SSVF program, started in 2012, provides a number of services to help rapidly rehouse veterans who are currently homeless. Despite these significant investments, interviewees noted that current interventions may not be appropriately calibrated to respond to the unique needs of veterans in rural areas.

One reported challenge was the difficulty of identifying unstably housed veterans in rural areas. Rural service areas are often large and sparsely populated, and SSVF staff may have to drive up to four hours to serve veterans within their geographic areas. Emergency shelters in rural areas are limited, which makes homeless veterans in rural areas more likely to double-up with others or stay in locations that are not designed for human habitation, such as in tents or abandoned buildings. In order to help identify unstably housed veterans, providers engaged in outreach to personnel at community-based health-care providers, post offices, law enforcement agencies, grocery stores, and public parks.

Respondents also reported that limited resources hindered their ability to provide services in rural areas. Many stated that there were not enough emergency shelters, HUD-VASH vouchers, and affordable, quality housing in their communities. A lack of transportation options for unstably housed rural veterans in many places made it difficult for providers to connect them to supportive services. More public transportation or transportation subsidies might be necessary for unstably housed veterans to get to jobs or medical appointments. Fewer employment opportunities in rural areas was also identified as a barrier to maintaining housing stability.

The interviewees described adopting a variety of strategies to address these needs. Several adopted flexible case-management models that involved providing transportation for veterans to get to appointments. Several reported relying on networks of churches to serve as short-term shelters. Most reported coordinating with other homeless assistance providers, public housing agencies, food and furniture banks, Veterans Service Organizations, VA Medical Centers, and private business to secure help for veterans.

The authors draw out several implications. First, they note the need for further research on how to effectively implement coordinated entry systems, which is a requirement for all Continuums of Care (CoCs), which may be more difficult for geographically dispersed rural CoCs. Further research on how programs can be tailored to fit a rural context may also be useful. They call for a set of best practices for homeless services provision in rural areas. Finally, they take the prevalence in these rural areas of unstably housed veterans who do not meet the official definition of homelessness (because they are doubled-up or living in substandard or makeshift housing) to be a reason to consider dedicating more resources to prevention services.

 “‘You Don’t See Them on the Streets of Your Town’: Challenges and Strategies for Serving Unstably Housed Veterans in Rural Areas” is at:

More information about the HUD-VASH program is on page 4-21 of NLIHC’s 2019 Advocates’ Guide.