How can it be that in this time of unprecedented prosperity for many in the United States, between 600,000 and 700,000 Americans are homeless on any given night? And that requests for both emergency shelter and food are on the increase around the country? But in fact, the 1999 Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America's Cities, a study released each December by the United States Conference of Mayors, tells us not only that requests for emergency shelter rose overall by 12 percent last year, but also that people are remaining homeless for longer periods of time.
In three quarters of the cities surveyed, moreover, shelters may not be able to accommodate homeless families and individuals because of lack of bed space. In Los Angeles, for instance, over half the shelters must turn people away. In San Antonio, people for whom space is not available in shelters "sleep in cars, parks and under bridges." Families who do manage to find accommodation often have to be separated, because most family shelters do not admit men. As a result, the father may have to stay at one shelter while mother and children are in another. Hardly a way to promote family solidarity.
The major causes of homelessness reappear year by year like an unchanging litany. Topping the list is the lack of affordable housing--a situation that, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has reached crisis proportions. So tight is the housing situation now that officials in the 26 cities surveyed estimate that low-income households spend almost half their income on rent. Little wonder, then, that some fall into actual homelessness as rents, in tandem with the flourishing economy, continue to rise--as do requests for subsidized housing. But here too, the demand far outstrips the supply. Waits for public housing and Section 8 certificates can be years long. The wait in New Orleans for a certificate is five years. The Miami-Dade County Housing Agency reported that its own waiting list for certificates had grown so lengthy that the waiting list was closed 11 years ago. In some cities, like Boston, families are frequently unable to find an apartment even when they have Section 8 certificates, because the competition for available rental units is so desperate.
Among the primary causes of homelessness are substance abuse, mental illness and the lack of needed services to address these. Other causes include low-paying jobs. H.U.D.'s own report on homelessness--which, like the mayors', was released in December--notes that 44 percent of those interviewed nationally had worked at least part-time during the preceding month. Having a job is no longer a guarantee against homelessness.
The picture with regard to hunger is similar to that for homelessness. Requests for emergency food assistance have risen in the past year by an average of 18 percent. And, as with unmet shelter needs, requests for food assistance often went unmet as heavier and heavier demands were placed on food pantries that lacked the resources to meet them.
Food stamps enter the picture too, because hunger and homelessness are often directly connected. In a study called Hungry and Homeless, released in November, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty noted that for some homeless men and women, food stamps are the only source of food. Owing to their poverty, most are eligible to receive stamps, but the study describes several barriers. These include lack of information about how to apply, difficulty in filling out applications and problems with re-certification. But perhaps the most inexcusable barrier is that--according to non-profit groups surveyed for the center's report-- homeless clients are "sometimes or frequently" denied stamps because they have no fixed address. The report points out, however, that under federal law an applicant does not have to reside at a permanent address to qualify for food stamps.
For both hunger and homelessness, the outlook for the new year is not bright. Most of the cities surveyed for the mayors' report expect that requests for emergency food assistance and shelter will increase. But solutions are at hand. If fully utilized by those who are eligible, and aided by aggressive outreach efforts, food stamps could help to eliminate hunger. The H.U.D. report, moreover, states that once housing assistance and needed services like health care, substance abuse treatment, mental health care, education and job training are in place, the picture of homelessness can change dramatically: 76 percent of those living in families and 60 percent of those living alone "end their homeless status and move to an improved living situation." But so far, the determination to make such services widely available at all levels--local, state and federal--and the willingness of Congress to provide funds sufficient to create needed levels of subsidized housing, have been lacking.