Cities Report Sharp Rise in Emergency Food, Shelter Pleas : Homeless: National Conference of Mayors finds situation aggravated by economic downturn and growing public intolerance of panhandlers.


Los Angeles and 29 other major U.S. cities reported sharp increases this year in requests for emergency food assistance and shelter--troubling figures at a time when both the nation’s economy and public tolerance for panhandlers are on the downswing, the U.S. Conference of Mayors said Wednesday.

Requests for emergency food assistance were up 22% from last year and there was a 24% increase in requests for emergency shelter, said a conference report on “Homelessness and Hunger in America’s Cities.”

“There is increased hostility to the homeless . . . 80% of the cities reported that public sentiment toward the homeless is changing,” said Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn. “The situation is getting worse, largely and recently because of the downturn in the economy.”

The report comes just weeks after the Supreme Court let stand an appeals court ruling that New York City could ban begging by panhandlers in its subway system. The appellate opinion referred to beggars as “intimidating . . . threatening . . . and harassing” to the 3.5 million daily commuters on the subways.


Growing requests for help are forcing all cities to turn away the homeless, and predictions for next year show even tighter budgets and resources, the report said.

For example, the percentage of food assistance facilities that had to turn people away because of lack of provisions rose to 86%, from 73% last year.

In Los Angeles, 14% more families requested emergency food assistance than last year but the quantity of food available has decreased, causing 30% of the needy to be turned away, the report stated. The report did not translate the percentages into numbers of people.

To help solve the problems, Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Sue Myrick called upon Congress to appropriate at least $1 billion for the National Affordable Housing Act, sponsored by Democratic California Sen. Alan Cranston and Rep. Henry Gonzalez (D-Tex.). The legislation, recently signed by President Bush, authorizes spending of $27.5 billion for next year. So far, no funds for programs that provide funds for first-time home buyers and arrange lower interest rates have been earmarked for the act.


Flynn charged that local governments, citizen volunteers and states--many now struggling with ballooning deficits--are carrying the burden of housing and feeding the homeless. Though all cities receive federal grants, the level of federal financial support is dwindling, Flynn said.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, which released a report on the effects of the recession on homelessness last week, federal spending for subsidized housing is now about $12 billion annually, compared to $32 billion in 1980. There has been a loss of more than 4 million low-income housing units since 1970, the coalition contends.

The coalition estimated that there are 3 million homeless people nationwide, including more than 100,000 in Los Angeles. The Bureau of Housing and Urban Development offers a more conservative national estimate of 600,000 on any given night.

Both the Conference of Mayors and advocates for the homeless agreed that substance abusers and the mentally ill are the most significant groups in the nation’s homeless population. Armed forces veterans are also a significant portion of the population at 26%, and 24% of the homeless are employed, the report said.


A new study in Los Angeles that was released Wednesday claimed the number of homeless in Los Angeles County grew 16.5% in one year. Between 114,000 and 183,000 people were homeless in the county at some point between July, 1989, and June, 1990, according to the Shelter Partnership, a nonprofit support group for Los Angeles homeless service agencies. The numbers are substantially higher than official county estimates of 30,000 to 50,000 homeless, and the group’s last estimate of between 100,000 and 160,000.

“Shelter Partnership has undertaken these estimates to help advise public policy makers and the general public of the magnitude and trends of the problem in Los Angeles County,” executive director Ruth Schwartz said.

Some county officials, however, said they were skeptical. County statistics for homeless assistance on which the study was based include an unknown number of duplications because many homeless apply for relief several times in a year, Paul Fast, Department of Public Social Services research director, said.