Casting a dark look over the past year, and an even darker look at what lies ahead, the U.S. mayors’ annual Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness predicts a rise in both throughout the country—an increase that, sadly, is already well under way. Released in December, the report, which covers 25 cities, notes that during 2002 requests for emergency food and shelter both rose so dramatically that providers in many cases were unable to meet the needs of those seeking help. Part of the blame can be traced to the economic downturn, accompanied as it is by a fiscal crisis that is affecting state and local governments with ever greater severity.
Last year, an average of 30 percent of emergency shelter requests by homeless individuals went unmet. The percentage is still higher for homeless families. Even when shelter for families is available, life in emergency shelter situations takes its toll, especially on children, uprooted as they are from all that is familiar to them. The damaging effects can be especially marked when family units have to be broken up, with the mother and the younger children in one shelter and older boys and the father placed in another. Forty percent of the cities reported that this kind of breakup was necessary. Even in Boston, whose overall record on emergency shelter is good, the State of Massachusetts has tightened its eligibility rules for family shelter accommodation. Yet the need has skyrocketed. In the survey, Boston shelter providers reported that whereas three years ago fewer than 100 families were placed in hotels and motels, last year the number rose to 540.
Making matters worse in what might be seen as a cruel pincer effect, as the economy has gone downhill, so too have donations to emergency food and shelter agencies declined. Corresponding declines in state and local revenues have led to a weakening in the very kinds of safety-net programs most needed in times of increased hunger and homelessness. Immigrants have been particularly affected by the economic downturn. Many had been working in service industry jobs at restaurants and hotels. These industries, however, have been among those most affected by the economic downturn following on the heels of the terrorist attacks of 2001—a factor leading to widespread layoffs of service workers. But because of their immigration status, the undocumented among them are ineligible for public benefits like food stamps, which are especially important in hard economic times.
As to the causes of the rise in both hunger and homelessness, the mayors’ report puts housing costs at the top of the list. The lack of affordable housing is a perennial factor in both, with low-income families who are lucky enough to have any housing at all often spending up to half their income on rent alone. Food and other necessities are correspondingly pared back. Not surprisingly, respondents from all the survey cities reported that food facilities—pantries and soup kitchens—were being sought out last year not only to meet emergency needs, but also as a steady source of food over extended periods of time. In a harshly related twist, because donations are down, food providers have frequently been obliged to curtail both the number of times individuals and families can receive assistance and the amounts they receive.
Besides housing costs, city officials cite a number of other causes for the increase in hunger and homelessness. Substance abuse and mental illness stand out among them, along with domestic violence. Low-paying jobs and overall unemployment also enter the picture, as well as reduced public benefits and child care costs.
For both hunger and homelessness, the report includes a section called “Three Specific Things the Federal Government Could Do” to alleviate the hardship caused by these twin evils. For hunger, a majority of respondents focus on the food stamp program: raising the income eligibility level, encouraging greater participation by simplifying the often dauntingly complex application forms and allowing undocumented immigrants to apply. For homelessness, the responses overwhelmingly call on the federal government to increase access to affordable housing. But the outlook for housing is bleak. Consider the plight of those seeking public housing. Besides the years-long waiting lists (seven years in Miami, for example), the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported just this past January that not only are cuts to public housing funds in store, but also cuts to Section 8 vouchers and other housing programs.
No wonder the “forecast” for what lies ahead is so bleak. This very bleakness makes the administration’s proposed tax cuts—cuts that will limit safety-net services still further even as they benefit the wealthiest Americans—all the more unconscionable.