Homelessness Intensify in US Cities
By Debra Watson
- - The number of people hungry and homeless in US cities
rose dramatically again in 2007, according to the annual report
on hunger and homelessness from the US Conference of
Mayors. The 23-city Hunger and Homelessness Survey
was released in late December.
Requests for emergency food
increased in four of every five cities. Among 15 cities with
quantifying data, the median increase in requests for food was
10 percent and in some cities it was much higher. Detroit and
some other cities reported seeing more working poor among those
In Detroit, emergency food
requests shot up 35 percent over the 12-month period ending in
October. Officials there noted that “due to a lack of resources,
emergency food assistance facilities have had to reduce the
number of days and/or hours of operation.”
Thirteen of 19 survey cities
reported they could not meet the demand for emergency food. Los
Angeles was one of the major cities reporting difficulties in
serving the growing need.
An official in LA said:
“Emergency food assistance facilities have to turn away people.
According to the LA Regional Foodbank, over 30 percent of their
food pantries have had to turn clients away and pantries that
don’t turn clients away are providing less food.
“In 2002, a food pantry would
provide an average of eight to ten different USDA commodities
per distribution. This holiday season, food pantries are
providing three USDA commodities. Food pantries are tasked to
serve more clients with the same amount of resources they had
six years ago. Twenty-one percent of overall demand for
emergency food assistance goes unmet.”
Across all cities, an average of
15 percent of families with children looking for emergency food
must be turned away. Nine in 10 of the cities sampled for
details on the urban hunger crisis say they expect increases in
food requests next year.
City officials said specific
factors exacerbating hunger over the past year were the
foreclosure crisis, the high prices of food and gasoline, and
the lack of affordable housing. Decreased social benefits such
as public assistance and the eroding value of food stamps were
also listed as particularly acute problems. Lack of donated food
and commodities and insufficient funding were listed as the most
important reason for turning away the hungry.
Economic issues such as
unemployment and poverty along with high housing and medical
costs were most cited by responding cities as the major causes
of chronic hunger. Substance abuse and mental illness were the
In 20 of the cities included in
the survey, 193,183 people had stays in emergency shelters
and/or transitional housing in the past year. The average
duration was six months for families and five months for
individuals, down from eight months last year.
The mayors’ survey statistics
capture unduplicated stays in city temporary housing facilities,
meaning if shelter was provided, a stay lasting weeks or months
would be counted as just one unduplicated stay.
The survey found that nearly one
in four unduplicated shelter stays were by members of family
groups. The ratio of family members to singles was found to be
roughly equal in homeless counts compiled elsewhere that
document sheltered homeless on any given individual night.
In general, cities reported
actual increases in households with children in their
transitional or emergency housing over the past year. Nine in 10
cities said that more permanent housing was needed to mediate
the problem of homelessness.
Thousands of beds to house the
homeless were added in the surveyed cities, yet half the cities
reported they turn people away some or all of the time. In
Phoenix, 7,000 to 10,000 are homeless on any given night and
3,000 cannot be sheltered due to lack of beds.
Individual city profiles come
from the broad range of US cities that participate in the
report. They have widely different average per capita incomes
and are located in various parts of the country. For example,
Santa Monica, California, a city of 83,000 with a per capita
income of $58,000, reports 728 singles and 142 households with
children were sheltered homeless in 2007. In contrast,
Philadelphia, with a population of 1.4 million and a poverty
rate of 23 percent, reports 8,103 individuals and 5,300
households with children in this category.
These profiles show only those
individuals that find shelter. Miami, a city of 360,000,
reported only 735 families and 365 individuals were in sheltered
housing for some duration during the past year. Des Moines, a
city half the size of Miami but in a much colder climate,
reported 3,632 families and 2,436 individuals were sheltered
homeless in 2007.
Twenty-three cities whose mayors
are members of the US Conference of Mayors Task force on Hunger
and Homelessness contributed in some form to the report for the
year ending October 30.
The City Profiles section of the
survey includes various reports of band-aid programs undertaken
by city administrations that admittedly fall far short of need.
More importantly, taken together, these local reports detailing
city-by-city conditions are more valuable in providing some
insight into the problems of hunger and homelessness that is
largely absent from political discourse in the US. The
statistics on hunger and homelessness are far more current when
compared to official government reports that rely on much older
A section in the report entitled
“Limitations of this Study” points to efforts under way this
year or planned for the future to gather more precise data. This
is apparently in response to right-wing critics who have
impugned the value of the report in previous years, claiming it
was not a representative sample and overstated the extent of
poverty. This response by the study’s authors ignores the real
reason for these critics’ discomfort—the desire to limit any
light being shed on the twin scourges of hunger and homelessness
characteristic of the social landscape of US cities.
The study was first conceived by
Democratic mayors as urban populations were hit by federal
budget cuts under the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan
in the early 1980s. The year-to-year comparison chart at the end
of the report has been a veritable misery index, right through
the Clinton and the Bush years, showing double-digit increases
almost every year in requests for emergency food and shelter.
Yet for reasons not stated, the appendix with the 16-year
historical chart comparing year-to-year survey results is
omitted this year.
Another glaring omission shows
one way the report underestimates the seriousness of the
social crisis in America. New Orleans is not included in the
survey, and data from that city has been left out of the report
since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.
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