Survey shows hunger, homelessness numbers slowing

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Requests for emergency food and shelter increased in many large U.S. cities this year, but not by as much as in recent years, according to a survey released Tuesday.

Requests for food rose by 14 percent, while appeals for shelter increased by 6 percent, said the annual report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, based on surveys of 27 large cities.

The numbers have risen every year since the conference began the survey 20 years ago. However, the rate of increase for food requests was the lowest since 1998. The rate of increase for shelter requests was less than half what it was in 2003, and the lowest since 1997.

"The good news here is that the increase in demand overall has slowed somewhat," said Nashville, Tenn., Mayor Bill Purcell, who chairs the conference's task force on hunger and homelessness. "The bad news is that the increased demand is all over the country."

Louisville, Ky., and its metropolitan area experienced the greatest spike in demand for emergency food, with requests rising 32 percent. Food needs rose 31 percent in Salt Lake City, 26 percent in Miami and Phoenix, and 24 percent in Los Angeles. Seattle reported a 3 percent decrease in emergency food requests.

Unemployment and underemployment are the leading causes of hunger, the report said, with high housing costs, medical costs, substance abuse and high utility costs also playing a role. Lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness, followed by mental illness and substance abuse.

About 23 percent of homeless people are considered mentally ill, while 30 percent are substance abusers.

The report does not attempt to calculate raw numbers of homeless or hungry people. It is based on cities' reports on the number of requests for emergency shelter or food, as provided by shelters and food banks.

The conservative Heritage Foundation called the report unreliable and exaggerated. It issued a statement saying it is implausible that the hunger rate could grow by double digits nearly every year for 20 years and cited Census Bureau surveys showing a relatively small increase in the use of food banks since 1995.

The president of a nationwide network of food banks agreed with the survey, however.

"The report supports what we've seen at food banks throughout the nation this past year," said Bob Forney, president and CEO of America's Second Harvest. "There has been a marked increase in the need for emergency food supplies. In addition to the economic forces that contribute to the pervasiveness of hunger, natural disasters have also spiked the need for more emergency food assistance, especially in Florida, where both the crops and the economy were devastated by hurricanes."

Philip Mangano, the federal government's top administrator on homeless issues, said the concerns raised by the survey are valid, even if the numbers are a bit fuzzy.

"In cities around our country there is the perception and in some cases, through data, the reality of increased homelessness throughout our country," said Mangano, director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "I think the spirit of this survey is to indicate to the country that we have a long way to go on the issues of homelessness, housing and hunger."

The study also found:

--Requests for food assistance by families with children increased by 13 percent.

--Fifty-six percent of people needing emergency food were members of families.

--Twenty-three percent of requests for emergency shelter by homeless people were unmet due to lack of resources.

The cities surveyed are Boston; Burlington, Vt.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Charleston, S.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; Cleveland; Denver; Detroit; Kansas City, Mo.; Louisville, Ky.; Los Angeles; Miami; Nashville, Tenn.; New Orleans; Norfolk, Va.; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Portland, Ore.; Providence, R.I.; St. Paul, Minn.; Salt Lake City; San Antonio; San Francisco; Santa Monica, Calif.; Seattle; and Trenton, N.J.

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