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New research from the University of Bristol and Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education is turning th...
New research from the University of Bristol and Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education is turning the conventional notion of homelessness as primarily an urban problem on its head. The ESRC-funded study of rural homelessness - the first of its kind in this country - analysed official homelessness statistics for England to reveal an increasing incidence of rural homelessness over the 1990s. The report also highlights the fact that although many people believe that young homeless people head to the bright lights of the city for work and accommodation there is a significant number who move away from urban areas to the country.

In 1996 almost 16,000 households were accepted as homeless by local authorities in rural England, some 14% of the national total. Furthermore, whilst the number of households accepted as homeless in urban areas decreased substantially between 1992 and 1996-a fall of around 18%-in deep rural areas numbers increased by 12%.

Yet accepted cases of homelessness represent only a fraction of the total homeless population. The number of homeless households accepted for rehousing represents just one third of the 46,748 homeless households who approached rural local authorities in 1996. Furthermore the official homelessness statistics do not include the many other homeless households who do not approach their local authority for help. The research team found that 65% of officers in rural areas believe that for example young and single people are particularly unlikely to seek local authority help. Two thirds of the officers questioned believe that rural homelessness is a significant national problem.

'The problem with identifying rural homelessness is that rural life is so often bound up with notions of idyllic lifestyles so people have much more difficulty in believing that rural homelessness exists' says Paul Cloke, co-director of the study. 'We found active rejection of the notion of homelessness in these areas both from government agencies and local authorities' he adds.

The researchers attributed this reluctance to acknowledge or deal with rural homelessness to the relative invisibility of the problem in rural areas where there is little discernible rough sleeping and to the notions of the 'rural idyll' which tend to hide issues such as crime, poverty and homelessness.

Yet the research suggests that action to tackle homelessness in rural areas is particularly important. While many of the reasons for homelessness are the same as in urban areas, particular features of the rural environment including lack of affordable accommodation to rent, poor transport and little or no emergency provision for homeless people make the problem very difficult to resolve.

One of the most significant findings of the research concerns different types of mobility amongst homeless people. The accepted view of homelessness is that people move from rural areas to the cities and towns where they believe work opportunities will be greater. However, the research revealed a significant movement of homeless people from the urban connurbations to rural areas.

The research has highlighted the need for:

- A recognition of rural homelessness at local level which needs to filter up to national level and form an urgent agenda for the government action

- More central government resources to provide affordable social rented housing in rural areas

- increased availability of affordable, secure private rented accommodation in rural areas

- More resources to provide local response schemes

- More housing initiatives relating to benefit systems, local employment opportunities and rural services

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