WASHINGTON—In spite of some economic improvement in the last year, mayors reported their cities experienced increased requests for food assistance, a growing number of homeless families and shortfalls in meeting needs.
“There is no question that the nation’s economy is on the mend, but there’s also no question that the slow pace of recovery is making it difficult—and, for many, impossible—to respond to the growing needs of the hungry and homeless,” said Helene Schneider, mayor of Santa Barbara, Calif., and co-chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness.
The group’s 31st annual assessment of hunger and homelessness surveyed 25 cities, including three in Texas—urban Dallas and San Antonio and suburban Plano.
Other cities participating in the 2013 survey were Asheville, N.C.; Boston, Mass.; Charleston, S.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago, Ill.; Cleveland, Ohio; Denver, Colo.; Des Moines, Iowa; Los Angeles, Calif.; Louisville, Ky.; Memphis, Tenn.; Nashville, Tenn.; Norfolk, Va.; Philadelphia, Pa.; Phoenix, Ariz.; Providence, R.I.; St. Paul, Minn.; Salt Lake City, Utah; San Francisco, Calif.; Santa Barbara; Trenton, N.J.; and Washington, D.C.
The survey asked city officials to provide information on the extent and causes of hunger and homelessness in their cities, as well as the assistance and services provided, between Sept. 1, 2012, and Aug. 31, 2013.
Twenty-one cities—including Dallas and San Antonio—reported requests for emergency food assistance increased in the past year. Of the remaining four, three—including Plano—said requests remained at the same level as 2012.
Among the 25 cities surveyed, emergency requests for food increased an average 7 percent. In Dallas, requests increased 11 percent, and San Antonio did not assign a percentage to its reported increase.
Families accounted for 58 percent of the food requests, and 43 percent of the people who asked for food assistance were unemployed.
Collectively, the surveyed cities distributed 557 million pounds of food.
Significantly, officials in the cities reported more than one in five of the people who needed assistance did not receive it due to scarce resources. Emergency food kitchens and food pantries had to reduce the amount of food clients received. More than three-fourths of the cities—78 percent—reduced the number of times a client could visit a food pantry each month, and in two-thirds of the cities, facilities had to turn away people due to lack of resources.
Almost two-thirds of the cities—64 percent—reported an increase in the number of families experiencing homelessness. Dallas bucked the trend, reporting the number of homeless families decreased 35 percent. However, the number of homeless individuals in Dallas increased 24 percent. San Antonio reported an 11 percent increase both in the number of homeless families and homeless individuals.
An average of 22 percent of homeless people who needed assistance did not receive it, officials reported. Emergency shelters in 71 percent of the cities had to turn away homeless families with children due to a lack of available beds, and shelters of two-thirds of the cities had to turn away unaccompanied individuals.
Number of homeless veterans down
The survey revealed at least one bright spot. Officials in 79 percent of the cities reported a reduced number of homeless veterans, and all but two of the cities succeeded in obtaining federal funds targeted to homeless veterans. More than half—56 percent—of the cities expect the Veterans Administration to achieve its goal of eliminating veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.
Officials in 62 percent of the cities expect resources for emergency shelters to decrease in the next year, and leaders in about half the cities expect the number of homeless families to increase.
When asked to identify actions needed to reduce hunger, officials in 73 percent of the cities cited the need to provide more jobs, and 59 percent called for increases in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Most cities identified proposed cuts in SNAP benefits and the inability of food assistance programs to meet increased demand as major challenges they anticipate in the next year.
“One thing is certain today. Until our economy improves for all Americans, programs to combat poverty, hunger and homelessness need to be protected—not sacrificed—by this Congress,” Schneider said.
Congress ‘should reconsider SNAP cuts’
As Congress continues to work on the budget, Jeremy Everett, director of the Texas Hunger Initiative, urged lawmakers to consider the findings of the survey and reconsider potential cuts to federal assistance programs such as SNAP.
“Ultimately, these proposed cuts would only serve to increase existing food insecurity among low-wage earners and unemployed individuals and families, aggravating the problem instead of solving it,” he said.
“As the Texas Hunger Initiative works to develop models that can close system gaps and make assistance programs more efficient, we believe that these types of cuts impede progress. Stakeholders from every sector—from corporations, to the private sector, to faith communities, to federal programs—must be fully invested in this effort, in order to see the eradication of hunger in our day.”