Homelessness, hunger climbing in U.S. cities, mayors’ survey says

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Although the jobless rate is at its lowest level in five years and the stock market has surpassed its pre-recession high, the economic gains have not reached many poor urban residents, and 2014 could be even worse, a new survey said Wednesday.

Homelessness and hunger have increased and are expected to keep rising in many cities next year, according to the latest U.S. Conference of Mayors survey of 25 large and midsized metro areas.

Last year’s national poverty rate of 15% is still near the Great Recession’s high of 15.1%, according to U.S. Census figures.


“We anticipated that problems related to unemployment and the slow national recovery would be reflected in the survey cities, and they were,” Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, a co-chair for the group’s task force on hunger and homelessness, told reporters in a conference call.

Officials involved in the urban survey said they were worried about recent cuts to food stamps and by the new congressional budget deal, which does not renew jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed. Those extended benefits will expire after Christmas.

“Despite the budget problems we all face, every level of government has got to [focus its resources] on solving these problems,” Schneider said.

The 25 surveyed cities, which include Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, reported a 3% increase in overall homelessness, and half of the cities expected the number of homeless families to rise in 2014.

On an average night, more than 20,000 people sleep on Los Angeles’ streets, and almost 2,000 of them are families or children living on their own, the city reported. Homelessness has increased 26% in Los Angeles since last year, and 16% of L.A.’s homeless were turned away for housing help.

Chicago reported an 11.4% increase in the number of homeless families since last year, with requests for emergency food assistance up 6%. City pantries had to reduce the amount of food they gave to the hungry. And homeless shelters were increasing the number of people allowed to sleep in a room to meet rising demand.


Officials around the country cited a lack of affordable housing as a factor in persistent homelessness. Nineteen percent of the cities’ homeless adults had jobs, including 22% of those in San Francisco, according to the survey.

“The housing market is such, particularly over the last few years, that shelter is taking a large chunk of what money they have,” said Paul Ong, director of the Center for the Study of Inequality at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. He added that median earnings for Americans had increased just 5% between 2007 and 2012, but that rents had risen 12%.

The result is a squeeze, he said. “You can’t pay for shelter and you end up being homeless. Or if you continue to live in the apartment, you have less available to you in terms of food, so you end up relying on other sources of food for your family.”

One bright spot in the survey: A wide majority of the cities said they had made gains in getting veterans off the streets and into housing.

National veteran homelessness rates plunged by 24% between 2010 and 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“We’ve seen success across the country,” said Laura Green Zeilinger, deputy director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, citing a federal plan to end veteran homelessness by 2015. “Now we must invest in solutions in staying that course.”


Some of the 2013 hunger stats were grim: Twenty-one percent of people needing emergency food assistance didn’t get it, and all but four of the 25 surveyed cities reported an increased need. The exceptions were Santa Barbara; Nashville; Plano, Texas; and St. Paul, Minn.

Overall, demand for food assistance rose 7%, and all but one of the cities — Dallas — expected demand to increase in 2014.

“The hungry and homeless issue continues to be with us,” said Tom Cochran, chief executive and executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “We are very concerned that before budget cuts take place, the mind-set of Washington does not understand what is happening in our neighborhoods and cities large and small across America.”

The cities surveyed were Asheville, N.C.; Boston; Charleston, S.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; Cleveland; Dallas; Denver; Des Moines; Los Angeles; Louisville, Ky.; Memphis; Nashville; Norfolk, Va.; Philadelphia; Phoenix; Plano; Providence, R.I.; St. Paul; Salt Lake City; San Antonio; San Francisco; Santa Barbara; Trenton, N.J.; and Washington.