Hunger and homelessness continued to rise in major American cities over the last year, according to the new U.S. Conference of Mayors-Sodexho USA Hunger and Homelessness Survey, released today at the Conference of Mayors Headquarters in Washington. In particular, families with children requesting food assistance and emergency shelter also increased substantially over the last year.

Even with an improving economy, overall requests for emergency food assistance increased by an average of 14 percent over the past year with 96 percent of the cities registering an increase. Also during the past year, requests for emergency shelter assistance increased by an average of 6 percent, with 70 percent of the 27 cities surveyed showing an increase.

“These are not simply statistics,” said Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, who co-chairs the Conference’s Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness. “These are real people, many are families with children, who are hungry and homeless in our cities. Unfortunately, the results of this year’s survey tell us that we are still far short in meeting the challenges of our neediest citizens.”

“These alarming results show that America’s working families are increasingly at risk for hunger and in need of shelter,” said Rod Bond, president of the School Services division at Sodexho USA. “Now is the time for all of us to focus on ways to address these issues and to bring attention to this survey which so clearly demonstrates the need for immediate action.”

The complete survey is available online.

The findings of the 27-city survey include:

Housing: The lack of affordable housing was identified by survey participants as the leading cause of homelessness. Participating cities reported that other causes most likely attributing to homelessness, in order of frequency, include mental illness and the lack of needed services, substance abuse and the lack of needed services, low-paying jobs, unemployment, domestic violence, poverty, and prisoner re-entry.

Requests for assisted housing by low-income families and individuals increased in 68 percent of the cities during the last year. Thirty-two percent of eligible low-income households are currently served by assisted housing programs. City officials estimate that low-income households spend an average of 45 percent of their income on housing.

Applicants must wait an average of 20 months for public housing in the survey cities. The wait for Section 8 certificates is 30 months, and for Section 8 Vouchers it’s 35 months. Fifty-nine percent of the cities have stopped accepting applications for at least one assisted housing program due to the excessive length of the waiting list.

Hunger: During the past year, requests for emergency food assistance by families – children and their parents – increased by an average of 13 percent. On average, 20 percent of the requests for emergency food assistance have gone unmet over the last year. For families alone, 17 percent of requests for food assistance have gone unmet.

Forty-eight percent of the cities surveyed reported that emergency food assistance facilities may have to turn away people in need due to lack of resources. The survey finds that 56 percent of those requesting emergency food assistance were families, and 34 percent of the adults requesting food assistance were employed.

In 100 percent of the cities surveyed, families and individuals relied on emergency food assistance facilities both in emergencies and as a steady source of food over long periods of time.

Additionally, the survey shows that unemployment and other employment-related problems lead the list of causes of hunger. Other causes contributing to hunger, in order of frequency, include low-paying jobs, high housing costs, poverty or lack of income, medical or health costs, substance abuse, high utility costs, mental health problems, homelessness, reduced public benefits and high childcare costs.

Homelessness: During the past year, 78 percent of the cities surveyed reported that requests for emergency shelter by homeless families increased by 7 percent. Fifty-six percent of participating cities reported that families may have to break up in order to be sheltered.

Eighty-one percent of the cities reported that emergency shelters may have to turn away homeless families and other homeless people due to lack of resources. An average of 23 percent of the requests for emergency shelter by homeless people overall have gone unmet over the last year. Additionally, for homeless families, 32 percent of the requests for assistance were not met.

“These survey results indicate, as they have in the past 19 years that we have done this survey, that there is still a great deal to be done to address the serious issue of homelessness in America,” said Cedar Rapids Mayor Paul Pate and co-chair of the Conference’s Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness.

“Again this year, the Hunger and Homeless survey shows that the demand for homeless shelters in our communities continues to increase. It is important that we all take seriously the challenge of eliminating chronic homelessness over the next 10 years,” he added.

The survey also shows that people remained homeless for an average of eight months in the survey cities.

Forty-six percent of the cities reported that the length of time people are homeless increased during the last year.

Single men comprised 41 percent of the homeless population, families with children 40 percent, single women 14 percent, and unaccompanied youth five percent.

Outlook: Eighty-eight percent of the cities surveyed expect that requests for emergency food assistance will increase during 2005. Eighty-four percent expect that requests for emergency food assistance by families with children will increase next year. Furthermore, 88 percent of participating cities expect that requests for emergency shelter will increase next year, and 78 percent expect requests for shelter by homeless families will increase in 2005.

City officials believe that even with an improving economy, economic conditions will continue to have a negative impact on the problem of hunger and homelessness.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors is the official nonpartisan organization of cities with populations of 30,000 or more. There are 1,139 such cities in the country today. Each city is represented in the Conference by its chief elected official, the mayor. The primary roles of the Conference of Mayors are to promote the development of effective national urban/suburban policy; strengthen federal-city relationships; ensure that federal policy meets urban needs; provide mayors with leadership and management tools; and create a forum in which mayors can share ideas and information.

The 27 mayors participating in this survey are members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness and include: Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, Cedar Rapids Mayor Paul Pate, Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, Charlotte Mayor Patrick McCrory, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes, Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, Louisville Metro Mayor Jerry Abramson, Miami Mayor Manuel Diaz, Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim, Philadelphia Mayor John Street, Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza, Portland Mayor Vera Katz, Providence Mayor David Cicilline, St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, San Antonio Mayor Ed Garza, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome, Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, and Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer.

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Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to glenn@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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