Hunger and Homelessness are both on the rise according to a U.S. Conference of Mayors report on the status of poverty in America.
The new report reveals that on average, cities reported a 12 percent increase in homelessness from 2007 to 2008, with 16 cities citing an increase in the number of homeless families. The lack of affordable housing, poverty and unemployment were cited as the primary causes of homelessness for families.
For individuals, the top three causes cited were substance, affordable housing and mental illness.
“At this time of significant economic downturn, the issues of hunger and homelessness in America are more prevalent than ever. Cities are the front lines where these effects are first felt, which is why mayors have been proactive and have implemented local initiatives to combat hunger and homelessness in their communities to take care of our most vulnerable residents,” said Conference President Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.
This year’s survey included a special focus on the demand for government-subsidized housing and the effect of the foreclosure crisis on homelessness.
Twelve cities, 63 percent, reported an increase in homelessness because of the foreclosure crisis. However, many cities did not have enough data to quantify the extent of the increase. The tenants of rental units in buildings where the landlord faced foreclosure were the most vulnerable to becoming homeless.
Also, when asked if their waiting lists for public housing and housing vouchers had increased or decreased, most cities reported that their waiting lists were closed to new applicants due to excess demand.
Not surprisingly, poverty, unemployment and the lack of affordable housing were also cited as the top three causes of hunger in the surveyed cities.
The report shows that requests for emergency food assistance went up in nearly every city surveyed with the demand outpacing the supply in 20 cities. Significantly, an estimated 59 percent of requests for food assistance were coming from families -- many for the first-time.
“This report highlights the factors that contribute to poverty in this country and shows how they are inter-related,” said Gastonia (NC) Mayor Jennifer Stultz, co-chair of the Conference’s Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness in a statement. “Yet, these are major challenges that cities, regardless of size, cannot handle alone. Mayors are already working with the new Administration to ensure that those most in need in America are not forgotten.”
Other key findings of the report: Cities were more likely to cite the high cost of housing as a main cause of hunger than the recent increase in food prices. In fact, when asked what would be most helpful in addressing hunger, affordable housing was the most commonly cited response. While private funding donations to food pantries increased by an average of 19 percent, there was only a 5 percent average increase in actual food donations from grocery stores and food companies. Cities adapted to increased food prices by purchasing cheaper protein sources and fewer whole grains; cities also reduced the variety and amount of food offered to people per visit to stretch limited food supplies. Nineteen of the 25 surveyed cities, 83 percent, reported an increase in homelessness over the past year. On average, cities reported a 12 percent increase. Most cities reported that, at times over the past year the demand for homeless assistance exceeded the availability of shelter. In some cases, cities supplied motel vouchers or designate overflow areas within shelters. It was not uncommon to turn people away due to lack of available beds. Most cities in the survey appear to have embraced the philosophy of placing chronically homeless persons into permanent housing as quickly as possible, then providing services. All but one of the cities surveyed has developed or is in the process of developing a ten-year plan to end homelessness. Three quarters of these plans, 75 percent, focused not just on ending homelessness for chronically homeless disabled adults, but also on preventing family homelessness.
In a statement, Mayor Gavin Newsome, Co-Chair of the Conference’s Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness said, “This report demonstrates that working families are increasingly at risk for hunger and in danger of homelessness, resulting from the weak economy coupled with high prices for food and fuel. San Francisco is finding new and innovative solutions to these problems like Direct Access to housing and Project Homeless Connect, but it's clear that we have a long way to go.”
More Than a Weak Economy at the Root of Homelessness
The National Coalition for the Homeless in a report this past summer, stated: “Two trends are largely responsible for the rise in homelessness over the past 20 to 25 years: a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a simultaneous increase in poverty.”
The Coalition also notes that while the last few years have seen growth in real wages at all levels, these increases have not been enough to counteract a long pattern of stagnant and declining wages. Low-wage workers have been particularly hard hit by wage trends and have been left behind as the disparity between rich and poor has mushroomed.
Serving the South Florida community since 1960, Camillus House is a non-profit organization that provides humanitarian services to poor and homeless men, women and children. They’ve been in the front lines of the battle against homelessness and according to officials of the organization, more than a weakened economy is to blame.
They point first to a lack of affordable health care.
“For families and individuals struggling to pay the rent, a serious illness or disability can start a downward spiral into homelessness, beginning with a lost job, depletion of savings to pay for care, and eventual eviction. Nearly a third of persons living in poverty had no health insurance of any kind.”
And then there is the specter of domestic violence.
“Domestic violence is the second leading cause of homelessness among women. Battered women who live in poverty are often forced to choose between abusive relationships and homelessness. Nationally, approximately half of all women and children experiencing homelessness are fleeing domestic violence.”
Mental Illness also plays a substantial role, say Camillus House officials.
“Approximately 22 percent of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness.” This they point out was a conclusion published by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2001.
Addiction Disorders are also in the mix, according to Camillus House.
“The relationship between addiction and homelessness is complex and controversial. While rates of alcohol and drug abuse are disproportionately high among the homeless population, the increase in homelessness over the past two decades cannot be explained by addiction alone.”
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