About 5.6 million veterans are living in rural regions of America, but public planners still have too limited a view of their struggles to effectively reach them, advocates warn.
Officials from the Housing Assistance Council held their annual summit on rural veterans issues Wednesday to push for more attention, outreach and resources for those individuals, who make up more than 11 percent of the total veterans population.
Veterans in rural areas are generally older (median age 62) than the overall veterans population (median age 40) and more likely to own their own homes, but less likely to have easy access to a variety of federal health care and employment offerings, according to group research.
That leads to challenges even for folks already focused on rural issues.
Jon Dieter, director of community services at Washington Longview Housing Authority, said recent national efforts to solve veterans' homelessness have led to a bounty of new housing resource partners in his state. But when officials tried to expand those efforts from cities to rural regions, the available partners suddenly disappeared.
"Like so many other things, you're just not going to find resources for rural veterans unless we push, pull and advocate for them," he said. "A lot of the problems we normally face with helping veterans become so much harder when we're in rural areas."
Lawmakers on hand at the summit praised recent efforts by Veterans Affairs officials to expand their rural offerings, but said that won't be enough to truly help veterans in those areas.
Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., said for many older veterans with limited transportation options, traveling to distant VA health care facilities or waiting for mobile care centers to visit their towns is less practical than getting the department to pay for checkups with private-sector doctors.
"So we need a different approach," he said. "Too often rural America gets screwed on these kinds of services."
Dieter said his organization was one of the first to use VA housing vouchers normally reserved for urban areas in their rural homeless solutions. Having that kind of flexible view of available tools, advocates argued, can solve veterans' problems more quickly than expecting veterans to change their addresses to access resources.
Eric Oberdorfer, research associate at the council, said his group is working on a new public data project to help better highlight the rural veterans population and their specific challenges.
The effort won't be complete until 2016, but once finished will enable any interested party to access veterans demographics data on rural counties and regions, to better plan resource placement and outreach efforts.