Mayors Say Requests for Food and Shelter Are Up

New York Times


WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 The nation's mayors said today that this year had brought the largest increase in demand for emergency shelter in a decade, a result of a sluggish economy and the rising cost of housing and health care.

And they said requests for food aid were second only to the peak year 2001, underscoring what they called a crisis in helping the needy.

At the same time, the mayors said in their annual survey on hunger and homelessness, they received less money to care for the poor and disadvantaged, a reflection of the federal budget, a drop in private charitable contributions and a shift in attention to the threat of terrorism.

"The war on terrorism has certainly moved the focus away from domestic problems," said Mayor Bill Purcell of Nashville. "But we mayors are dealing with homeland security and domestic security simultaneously. We hope that the release of this report will help the federal government and the nation understand what we must all do for the needy."

An administration official said in an interview today that the Department of Housing and Urban Development would provide $1.12 billion for programs for the homeless next year, a $28 million increase over this year.

In the survey, to be released on Wednesday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that the demand for food aid rose throughout the country by 19 percent, with working families topping the list of the most needy. The demand for emergency shelter was more varied, with St. Louis reporting the greatest increase 64 percent while the overall average was also 19 percent.

More worrisome, the mayors said, is the growing evidence that the lack of food and adequate shelter for the working poor is becoming an endemic problem. There has been a steady rise in emergency food and shelter requests in the nation's cities since the mayors began their survey in 1986, with no sign that the problems are abating.

"The world's richest and most powerful nation must find a way to meet the basic needs of all its residents," said Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, president of the conference. "We need a recommitment to help people put a roof over their head and have a nutritious meal every day."

Nearly two-thirds of the 25 cities surveyed said they had to decrease the amount of food they provided to the poor this year, rationing meals and food donations to ensure that no one went hungry. The cities also reported that people remained homeless for an average of six months, and that 73 percent of the homeless families were headed by single parents.

"This report shows that the country's economic problems are visited most strongly on children and the working poor," said Doug O'Brien, vice president for policy at Second Harvest, a network of nonprofit food banks that provides most of the food distributed by charities.

Second Harvest released a report last year showing that private charities were feeding more poor people than the federal government.

While the mayors lauded President Bush for acknowledging the role of private charities in aiding the country's poor and disadvantaged, they said the administration should increase its support for food assistance and housing.

The housing crisis seemed the more intractable problem in the survey. Several mayors and experts said that the demand for emergency food often stemmed from a poor family's inability to pay both rent and grocery bills. With more families priced out of the housing market, the demand for public housing has exploded.

In Miami, for instance, there is a seven-year waiting list for public housing.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams of Washington said it would take a coordinated effort on many fronts to combat homelessness, including new federal financing for housing, job training, substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling.

President Bush vowed this year to end chronic homelessness within 10 years, and two-thirds of the HUD money will pay for homeless shelters and related social service and prevention programs. An additional $35 million will pay for programs to help people who live on the streets, said Philip Mangano, director of the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness.

"The money is modest," Mr. Mangano said, "but it comes at a time when most states and localities have had to cut funding that affects the homeless."

The mayors asked the president and Congress to enact what they called a national housing agenda that would substantially increase the amount of low-cost housing.

"We know what we need to do," Mayor Purcell said. "What we need is funding to build the right kind of housing."

Adding their voices to the demand for more food assistance, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators passed a resolution last week declaring that hunger was a "national problem that undermines the ability of children to learn and grow, of adults to be productive and the elderly to live in dignity."

The group asked the states to put in effect federal changes that streamline the food stamp program and asked the administration to increase nutritional programs by $1 billion.

They also urged Americans to donate their time and money to combat the two problems.


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