When Mississippians think of the homeless, we mostly think of out-of-state people in big cities who are either severely mentally ill, chronic substance abusers, or those who are chronically homeless. We also comfort ourselves in the notion that homelessness is far less pronounced in the rural South because we “take care of our own.”
There is some truth in that. The National Alliance to End Homelessness conducted research that shows that 82 percent of documented homeless persons are in urban or mostly urban areas, while seven percent are in rural or mostly rural areas.
But the urban homeless are far more visible and hence harder to ignore. The rural homeless, which are the preponderance of Mississippi’s homeless population, are often hidden. Instead of sleeping on the streets as in large cities, they congregate in the woods, campgrounds, barns, vehicles or abandoned or substandard housing not truly meant for habitation.
The truth about homelessness in Mississippi is a mixed bag. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development keeps statistics on homeless in an annual report called HUD’s Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Programs Homeless Populations and Subpopulations.
The data represents an attempt – and is admittedly not independently verified – to document the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in the country by state. Counting homeless people, like counting immigrants or others who are distrustful of authority figures, is an incredibly inexact science.
How many homeless persons in Mississippi have been counted? According to HUD, there are 2,403 homeless in Mississippi. Some 321 of those homeless are persons under the age of 18.
HUD classifies 475 of Mississippi’s homeless individuals as “chronically homeless.” Another 230 of our homeless are “severely mentally ill.” Another 498 of the state’s homeless are listed as engaging in “chronic substance abuse” while another 230 of them are veterans.
The government counted 47 homeless victims of HIV/AIDS and 216 victims of domestic violence.
And of the 2,403 Mississippi homeless identified by HUD – again, a count that is admittedly likely to be low – 501 are in emergency shelters, 582 are in some temporary traditional housing, and 1,320 are “unsheltered.” The worse news about homelessness in Mississippi is that it is exacerbated by poverty and Mississippi remains the poorest state in the union.
But one national index in which Mississippi ranks high is generosity and a willingness to help others. The good news about the problem in our state is that there exists a large number of public, private, parochial and service groups dedicated to helping the homeless. If you know of a homeless person that needs assistance, here is a wealth of contact information to help you help them: http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/states/mississippi/homeless.
It seems the problem of homelessness is somehow more depressing and hopeless during the holiday season. That’s why many very noble efforts to provide holiday meals and toys for underprivileged children find success at this time of year.
But the truth is that poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and the clutches of substances abuse threaten Mississippi families all year long and require not merely the generosity of the holidays, but a place at the table of public policy debate.
(Daily Corinthian columnist Sid Salter is syndicated across the state. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)