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15th Annual Survey Hunger and Homelessness Continue to Rise in America's Cities

By Eugene T. Lowe

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman joined Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, Chair of the Conference of Mayors Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness, Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci, Jr., Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic and HUD Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Development Fred Karnas in releasing the U.S Conference of Mayors 15th Annual Survey on hunger and homelessness December 16. The survey, A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America's Cities, 1999, found that the demand for emergency food assistance grew last year at the highest level since 1992, and the demand for emergency shelter grew at the highest level since 1994.

In his opening remarks, Mayor Clavelle set the background of the survey. He said: "This is the 15th year we have published a survey report on the growth of hunger and homelessness in the cities that make up our Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness. Last year when I presented this survey, I reported that the problems of hunger and homelessness were still with us, as they have been year after year.

"It is amazing to us that the problems of hunger and homelessness continue to demand our immediate attention. Usually, task forces at the Conference of Mayors exist for no more than three to four years at the longest as they are created to respond to immediate problems. But the task force on hunger and homelessness has been in existence for fifteen years, by far the longest existing task force in the history of the Conference of Mayors."

Describing the major findings of the survey, Mayor Clavelle continued: " In 1999, as in every year that we have conducted our survey, overall demand for both emergency food and shelter increased for most of the survey cities."

Clavelle continued:

  • The demand for emergency shelter unmet continues at a high level, and the shelters in cities that have had to turn people away, while declining last year, increased this year.

  • The survey found that requests for emergency food increased this year by an average of 18 percent, the highest rate of increase since 1992 when we also reported an 18 percent increase.

  • Eighty-five percent of the cities reported an increase in food demand, with the majority of these requests coming from families with children. The 15 percent increase in demand by families for food assistance is the highest rate since 1991.

Clavelle said that, while so many mayors and others make an extra effort during the holidays to feed the poor, many must go hungry year round. "This year, 21 percent of the requests for food are estimated to have gone unmet, which is the same as last year's finding, which was the highest rate since 1992. Slightly more than half of the cities say that they may have to turn away people in need because of lack of resources, a seven percent increase over last year's finding," Clavelle said.

"Unfortunately, our nation's unprecedented prosperity is not reaching a lot of our own. Driving the increased food problems are low-paying jobs, unemployment, high housing costs, poverty, substance abuse and changes in the food stamps program," Clavelle told the media.

Other remarks:

  • "Some city officials have told us that a booming economy can drive up housing costs and reduce supply. This may explain why requests for emergency shelter increased by 12 percent in 1999, the largest increase since 1994. Sixty-nine percent of the cities - slightly less than last year's finding - reported that demand had increased."

  • "The average demand for emergency shelter which goes unmet continues to be high at 25 percent. (The average demand for emergency shelter which goes unmet has been consistently in the twenties for every year of the survey with the exception of four years.) Also significant: nearly three-quarters of the cities say that shelters may have to turn people away."

  • "Causes of homelessness are diverse and complex. Affordable housing leads the list as a main cause of homelessness, followed by substance abuse, low-paying jobs, domestic violence, mental illness, poverty, and changes and cuts in public assistance."

  • "The composition of the homeless population has changed little in recent years, with single men, at 43 percent, continues as the largest group seeking help, and families with children, at 37 percent, continuing to represent a significant portion of the population. We estimate that substance abusers constitute 31 percent."

  • "Most of the survey cities expect demand for emergency food and shelter to increase in the year ahead: 84 percent expect demand for food to increase; 92 percent expect increased demand for shelter. No cities expect demand for food or shelter to be lower."

During his remarks, Agriculture Secretary Glickman announced a partnership between USDA and the Conference of Mayors to ensure that more of the nation's 36 million Americans who are hungry or on the brink of hunger can access food stamps. The Secretary said: "With the best economy in years, there is no reason that millions of Americans - children, the working poor, the elderly, legal immigrants - have to struggle to put food on the table. Far too many people eligible for food stamps have not been taking advantage of this program."

Secretary Glickman's partnership with the Conference of Mayors is designed to address the decline in food stamp rolls by nearly 10 million people since 1995. According to a press statement of the Department of Agriculture, "the decline is due, in large part, to the robust U.S. economy and the 1996 welfare law. However, food stamp participation has declined three times faster than poverty, indicating that there are many people eligible for food stamps who may be living without sufficient food."

Accepting the partnership with the Agriculture Department, Mayor Clavelle said: "The U.S. Conference of Mayor will work with USDA to reach communities and individuals in need by expanding local outreach networks and distributing food stamp educational materials."  The Department of Agriculture and the Conference of Mayors will develop strategies on food stamp public education efforts and to implement local action plans to reach more eligible food stamp participants.

Providence Mayor Cianci said of the survey, "While so many of us make an extra effort to feed the poor during the holiday season, we quickly forget that the poor must eat year round. It is stunning that this study shows that so many people here in the United States are turned away and must go hungry."

During his remarks, Mayor Cianci also announced a petition drive that cities are participating in which calls on Congress to end hunger in America. The drive is being sponsored by Rhode Island philanthropist Alan Shawn Feinstein. The ten cities with the greatest percentage of signers from their local population by February 29, 2000 will each receive a donation from the Alan Shawn Feinstein Foundation of $5,0000 to support local hunger programs. The twenty runner-up cities will each receive $1,000.

Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic said, "The time for attacking the poor and blaming the poor is over. It's time we devoted some of the budget surplus to those who are not benefitting and indeed may be suffering as a result of the booming stock market."

HUD Deputy Assistant Secretary Fred Karnas said that the survey underscored the importance of the Clinton Administration's Continuum of Care policy as a tool for collaborative and comprehensive community planning to address the issue of homelessness.

According to a HUD press release, "Secretary Andrew Cuomo said the USCM survey supports the conclusions of report on homelessness that was released by HUD last week. Last week's report said that when homeless people get housing assistance and needed services - such as health care, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, education and job training - 76% of those living in families and 60% of those living alone end their homeless status and move to an improved living situation after completion of the assistance program."

Upon seeing the survey, Conference President Denver Mayor Wellington E. Webb said, "This report confirms the unfortunate and sadly ironic effect that prosperity has on the poor in cities. Our good economy has simply driven up housing costs and reduced the supply of affordable housing - putting many people on the streets and into shelters."

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