Hunger and homelessnessmore and more Americans are feeling the cruel effects of both these painful phenomena. Such is the overall conclusion of the U.S. mayors’ annual Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness, issued each December as a survey of over two dozen cities. The current report documents accelerated demands for food and shelterdemands that often go unmet by overextended emergency food and shelter providers.
Though the economy had already begun to slow last summer, the impact of the terrorist attacks in September drove up unemployment rates even more sharply, especially in cities whose tourism industry employed large numbers of restaurant and hotel workers. In Washington, D.C., for example, Bread for the City reported a 67 percent increase in new clients after Sept. 11. On the other side of the nation, agencies that provide emergency food in Santa Monica, Calif., another city heavily dependent on tourism, found that requests had jumped by 50 percent over the previous year. Families with children account for many of those seeking food assistance.
All the cities, moreover, found that emergency food facilities were being used not only for emergency needs, but for ongoing nutrition requirements over long periods. The number of pantries and soup kitchens grew in a majority of the survey cities. But the heightened demand forced many to decrease the amounts of food they distributed or the number of times per month people could receive assistance. Making matters still worse, food donations fell. Officials in Nashville, for instance, pointed out that big food companies that had previously donated dented and broken packages were now selling them instead.
The picture of homelessness offers a close parallel to that of hunger. Contrary to the popular view that homeless people are mostly single men, families with children make up an equal proportion of the overall homeless population: 40 percent. Because of limited space in over half the cities’ shelters, families have been increasingly turned away. Even when space was available, family members frequently have had to separate because shelters that can accommodate intact families are fewan especially disturbing circumstance, given the importance of family unity for child development. In Louisville, Ky., family shelters do not accept males over 14 years of age, a limitation that in effect mandates the separation of fathers and older boys from the mothers. In Chicago, the stricture applies in some facilities to male children as young as 11.
Again contrary to popular perception, many homeless men and women work either full time or part time. Their earnings, however, do not suffice for both food and rent. In what might be considered a cruel irony, the weakening economy has done little to bring down rental costs. As a result, lack of affordable housing stands out as the number one cause of homelessness. Those lucky enough to obtain Section 8 housing vouchers may find them useless, because landlords in many parts of the country can command more on the open market than the vouchers would provide. Consequently, a third of the vouchers are returned unused. For those seeking public housing, the wait can be years longin San Diego, it is five. Some cities have stopped taking applications altogether.
Other leading causes of homelessness include substance abuse and its inexcusable concomitant, lack of free residential drug treatment services. Mental illness is another leading cause: mentally ill women and men account for over a fifth of the homeless population. Because of aberrant behavior over which they have little control, they may be arrested and jailed, leading to further deterioration in their condition and a revolving-door situationon the streets, and then into and out of jail. Finally, a principal cause of homelessness among women and children is domestic violence. Eight of the 27 cities surveyed, in fact, cite this as the primary cause.
The report ends with a section called Outlook: Expected Requests for Food and Shelter. It presents a bleak picture. Church leaders are speaking out to deplore not only the toll already being taken on the poorest, but also the prospect of worse days to come. Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, for example, made an urgent appeal just before Christmas for donations to Catholic Charities because a number of its programs for needy and vulnerable people are at risk. Calling the present Massachusetts state budget a disgrace, he mentioned two Catholic Charities recovery homes in Brockton that may be forced to close because of cuts in state fundingone for women with babies, and the other for men recovering from addictions.
The economic slowdown notwithstanding, there is no place in what is still the richest country in the world for the escalating levels of hunger and homelessness that we are now seeing throughout the United States.