With the Great Recession continuing to take a toll on America's middle class, it should come as no surprise that homelessness and hunger remain tough problems for America's cities, as the annual report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors points out.
In the 2010 Hunger and Homelessness Survey, 27 large and medium sized cities throughout the nation were studied and the report found that homelessness increased by 2 percent across surveyed cities and family homelessness increased by 9 percent.
According to the mayors' conference, every city surveyed reported that requests for emergency food assistance increased by an average of 24 percent over the past year. Among those requesting emergency food service, 56 percent were families and 30 percent were employed. When asked to report on the three main causes of hunger, respondents cited unemployment, housing costs and low wages.
While there is currently an historic effort to restore America's economy, the effects of hunger and homelessness are clearly evident in America's cities and urban centers. This is why mayors have been so proactive in supporting and encouraging local food programs and why federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- food stamps-- are so critical, said Asheville, NC Mayor Terry Bellamy, chair of the USCM Hunger and Homelessness Task Force.
Cities most frequently cited increasing demand and decreasing resources, particularly related to federal and state budget problems, as the biggest challenge to addressing hunger in the coming year, Bellamy said.
This year's survey makes it clear that even working families are increasingly at risk for hunger and homelessness as a result of the crippled economy and rising unemployment. As mayors, it is our responsibility to create effective local programs and strengthen federal partnerships to help those in need, said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Los Angeles was the largest city surveyed. Among the other cities surveyed, Chicago, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Dallas, San Francisco, Boston and Denver are among the 25 most populated in the nation. Only two of the cities surveyed - Gastonia, NC and Trenton, NJ - have populations under 100,000.
According to the survey, for families, unemployment was the leading cause of homelessness, while for individuals, it was the lack of affordable housing.
Across the surveyed cities, an average of 27 percent of homeless persons needing assistance did not receive it because of a lack of resources, the mayors found.
At a time when a noted financial analyst, Meredith Whitney, is predicting that as many as 100 U.S. cities face default on their municipal bonds, the mayors conference is calling for federal help, as well as assistance from the private sector, to deal with immediate social problems.
Although the report surveys 27 cities, it mirrors what is happening nationally, said Burnsville, MN Mayor Elizabeth Kautz, who is the USCM president. At a time when the poverty rate is at a record high, and in many cities unemployment is in double-digits, mayors cannot handle these challenges alone. We need all levels of government, as well as the private sector, to partner with us to assist growing numbers in our communities.
U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan pointed to positive trends in the survey.
Not only does the survey show that homelessness is ticking back up in the wake of the economic crisis--echoing data we've seen about the increase in family homelessness--it also reveals how communities are using new tools like the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program--or HPRP--to meet that increased need, Donovan said.
Launched in early 2009 as part of President Obama's Recovery Act, HPRP has prevented or ended homelessness for more than three quarters of a million people, Donovan said.
He highlighted Cleveland's Continuum of Care program, that is using HPRP funds to create a Central Intake system that provides more appropriate services to those entering the shelter system -- helping the community not only manage the available beds and services more effectively but also ensure that households are finding permanent housing as quickly as possible.
Becky Kanis, director of the 100,000 Homes Campaign, indicated other examples of cities dealing with homelessness.
This year's survey contains good news and bad news about homelessness, Kanis said. Tough economic times have contributed to a spike in homelessness in several cities, including an average increase in the number of homeless families. The good news is that many cities have been able to reduce homelessness in spite of the bad economy by focusing on permanent supportive housing.
Kanis noted successful housing programs in Boston, Phoenix, Chicago and Denver.
The lesson of this report is housing, housing, housing, Kanis said.
The survey also indicated ways cities are dealing with hunger.
Examples of successful initiatives include providing needy children with back-packs filled with non-perishable food in Asheville; a program that matches food cupboards with local gardeners to provide participants with locally-grown fresh produce in Philadelphia; and a comprehensive program in Los Angeles to raise community awareness about food stamp benefits, help people to determine eligibility and assist individuals in navigating through the application process, according to the mayors report.
The mayors conference survey is available here.