April 1, 2015

Homelessness and rootlessness out West

From a post at Movoto, here's a map of how the states rank on the size of their homeless population per capita:

The West Coast, Nevada, Hawaii, and Alaska are all in the top 10. All the Mountain states are in the top half of the nation, except for Mormon Utah. The northern Plains states are doing poorly too.

There are pockets of heavily homeless states back East, but not entire regions. Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine are up there, but not so much New Hampshire, Rhode Island, or Connecticut. New York is plagued by homeless, but the other Mid-Atlantic states aren't even in the top 20. Aside from New York, the only other centers of homelessness back East are in Florida and Georgia, and perhaps Tennessee.

Overall, though, the Deep South, Appalachia, the Midwest, and the southern Plains regions have comparatively small homeless populations.

These patterns reflect how deeply rooted the people are, with most places west of the Mississippi River having shallower roots than folks who still live where the original American settlers lived.

My hunch is that it's not just due to the shiftless, transient, and footloose tendencies of Frontier people, which would only apply to the professionally homeless. There's also those who are only temporarily homeless, and they ought to at least have family and friends to rely on for temporary relief, if the alternative is to live out of a car or on the street.

But where roots are shallow, people are less likely to have those connections. With less slack in the social system, a small accident is more likely to bring the whole thing down. Where roots are deeper, the norm is that "We take care of our own".

The data these maps were drawn from come from HUD, and reflect total homeless numbers. About 15% of the total homeless population falls into the "chronically homeless" group that we associate with drifters, bums, and the like. The rest are down on their luck, poor, lazy, addicted, or something else that makes them prone to occasional homeless living, without it being a full way of life.

I've downloaded the HUD data for myself, so if there's time, I'll re-do the rankings looking only at the chronically homeless, to see where the bum problem is the worst. Glancing over the numbers, it looks like that will tilt the rankings even more toward the West.

The data are also broken down into smaller geographic units below the state level, so we can see which cities and metro areas are more over-run.


  1. Florida was sort of a micro-version of the western frontier, with lots of lawlessness, fierce Indian tribes, rival foreign influences and a dangerous natural environment which prevented settlement for a long time. Even though it's on the east coast, Florida joined the union about the same time as western states like Texas and California.

    The Daily Mail ran an interesting article about Florida's reputation for weirdness.


    Historically, Florida was a wild frontier where anyone brave enough to live in the state had to contend daily with a swamp threatening to swallow them up, wild animals likely to do the same, and a fiercely violent and defensive population. Gun violence was rife and according to Pittman, there was a rapacious attitude towards the land.

    'In the mid-1800s the state tried giving away all of its swampy property to anyone who promised to drain it or fill it. By 1883, the government had given away deeds to 17.5 million acres of wetlands - even though it only owned 14.7 million acres,' he writes.

  2. Two states that I am most familiar with Nebraska and Iowa really had different results. Here is my theory. Iowa is more densely populated period and their small towns are larger and closer together then Nebraska. One thousand homeless guys wondering around Des Moines is going to have less of an effect on their numbers then the same group in Omaha. Just a theory but that would suggest why cold remote Minnesota has a bigger homeless problem then Missouri. Nevada would be the ideal example but that state is weird in so many ways that I don't try to reference it. I'm not arguing against rootlessness, I'm just thinking of states that have a large urban population and a very lightly populated rural population. I still see homelessness as largely a big city(loosely defined) problem so maybe that is my mistake.

  3. "Even though it's on the east coast, Florida joined the union about the same time as western states like Texas and California."

    Right, and like the other two it has always been a boom state. In 1850, it only had about 90K, compared to about 900K in Georgia, or even 600K in Mississippi. Now it has about 20 million, compared to 10 million in Georgia and 3 million in Mississippi.

    And it has seen double-digit growth rates per decade since it became a state, with almost all of those rates being 30% or greater. Compared to Mississippi, which only saw double-digit growth rates until about 1900, and has grown slowly since then.

    Those rates are obviously not coming from births to current residents, but massive influx of out-of-staters. Boom towns are automatically rootless.

    That continues to this day, when about 2/3 of Florida's residents were born in another state.

  4. "Boom towns are automatically rootless."

    So these boom towns will probably disappear once the trend towards equality starts, if it hasn't already.

  5. "One thousand homeless guys wondering around Des Moines is going to have less of an effect on their numbers then the same group in Omaha."

    The data are not at the city level, though. It's showing the homeless population of the entire state, wherever they live, divided by the state's total population size.

    The homeless map doesn't look like a map of population density, whether directly or inversely related. It's more of a Frontier / West thing, and some pockets of the welfare state run amok on the East Coast.

  6. "So these boom towns will probably disappear once the trend towards equality starts, if it hasn't already."

    Not necessarily. California, Texas, and Florida saw double-digit growth rates all through the Great Compression. That's more a reflection of how late the population was seeded, and how much space and resources there are to support population growth. Their growth will only slow once they're near carrying capacity.

  7. Fair point Agnostic. I was aiming at something slightly different then population density. I was thinking of an area that might be fairly densely populated but still be considered by almost everyone as rural as opposed to very rural states with large cities like Denver. This got me to thinking about the difference between ranching(Nebraska) and farming culture(Iowa) without really offering a competing theory. One area you might want to look at is the amount of money spent per person on gambling. I suspect that any state except Utah that needs money will probably push through permissive gambling laws if they haven't done that already. I also suspect that those states will suffer on various social indexes including homelessness because of that but I haven't done the research. Thank you for your blog!

  8. Expat Woodchuck4/1/15, 5:29 PM

    New York state is dark because such a huge percentage of its population is from NYC, which is arguably the best place to be homeless on the entire east coast. I'm sure rates are not nearly that high upstate. Likewise, western MA is probably very, very low compared to Boston. Massachusetts' problem is, as you said, "the welfare state run amok". I've met homeless people in MA who told me point-blank that they moved there from stingier states because they could get more benefits.

    Vermont is in the same boat, with an out-of-control welfare state, largely because hordes of rich liberals from Boston and NYC like to retire to Vermont, get second homes there, or move there to raise their kids away from the big city. Specifically, the biggest issues driving homelessness in VT right now are the excessively generous state-funded drug "rehabilitation" programs, which attract lots and lots of drug addicts from out of state, and discourage native drug addicts moving away to big cities where they'd be more successful as panhandlers. These poorly-designed programs make it easy to turn drug addiction into a viable long-term lifestyle. I predict a lot of Vermont's problems will be over in 25-35 years, because most of the drug addicts will be dead.

  9. "I've met homeless people in MA who told me point-blank that they moved there from stingier states because they could get more benefits."

    Folks say the same thing about the Mormon church in Utah, which has extensive welfare services and industries. Only out there, someone with a sob story won't wind up homeless because the gullible Mormons will pay their rent (within reason).

    Most people from outside the Mountain states wouldn't think of the LDS church as a welfare state, but it kind of is, at least in its main sphere of influence. Some degree of helping members out is perfectly normal for a social institution, but doling out however-much to whoever puts their hand out and feeds you a hard luck story is welfare do-gooderism run amok.

  10. Under Peter Turchin's categories, Mormons I guess would fall under non-punitive cooperators. Altruistic and conscientious, but no enforcer-mentality. This is why they are more avoidant - if you're unwilling to punish someone who does you wrong, the best option is to avoid them in the first place.

  11. Mormons do business with other Mormons, but the flaw is that it seems relatively easy to convert.

  12. This map correlates well with the % of Jewish population by states as well as with the Blue-Red states map. I don't know what cause and effect would explain that. Leftist politics?

  13. The Mountain states and Alaska are red states with libertarian tendencies. Homelessness is also not much of a prob on the blue East Coast south of NYC.

  14. I am not suggesting a single cause, but an important correlation. Exceptions don't negate a high correlation in states that are far more important and populous.

    Very high inequality does lead to higher level of homelessness, e.g., Silicon Valley.


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