Residents of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and other states have been known to remark, "Thank goodness for Mississippi," when presented with a 50-state ranking. They can usually rest assured that their state won't rank last on quality-of-life measures because the Magnolia State will be bringing up the rear.
For that reason, you can understand why I was surprised by one of the findings of the new report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which conducted the first effort at a national count of those without homes in a decade: Mississippi has the fewest homeless people per capita of any state in the country.
In fact, the others that rank after Mississippi in the top five aren't exactly a who's who of wealthy states: West Virginia, Wyoming, North Dakota and Alabama. At the bottom of the list are Nevada, Rhode Island, California, Hawaii and Colorado.
Some degree of skepticism with this finding is in order.
Counting homeless populations is notoriously difficult. The National Alliance relied on counts by local Continuums of Care (CoCs), the entities that provide homeless services. So, if CoCs in some states did a better job than others, the numbers could be thrown off. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development released a somewhat skeptical statement on the report, promising its own "more complete" analysis soon.
However, there is some logic to Mississippi leading the pack. Based on 2000 Census numbers, all five of the states with the smallest homeless populations, also have unusually low percentages of their populations living in urban areas (Mississippi ranks 47th and West Virginia 48th in this regard).
On the flip side, Nevada, the state with the proportionally largest homeless population, has the 3rd most urban population, a trend also seen in the other states with large homeless populations. This correlation suggests that homelessness remains a distinctly urban problem.
The report also broke the homeless population down into "sheltered" and "unsheltered" categories, with the latter being the most homeless of the homeless. Using the unsheltered group, Mississippi fell to sixth, with the top five states for small homeless populations being Maine, South Dakota, North Dakota, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. The five worst: Nevada, California, Colorado, Hawaii and Oregon.