More Homeless, More Hungry

H. C. Covington at I CAN America (
Wed, 2 Jun 1999 16:56:11 -0500

More Homeless, More Hungry
from AMERICA The Jesuit Catholic Weekly Magazine Editorial, Jan. 30, 1999

DESPITE UNPRECEDENTED PROSPERITY, thousands of Americans are hungry and have no
place to sleep at night. The U.S. Conference of Mayors' annual "Status Report on
Hunger and Homelessness in American Cities," released in mid-December, reports
that in the past year emergency shelter requests were up 15 percent for families
(11 percent overall), and requests for food assistance rose 14 percent.

Many of these homeless people are parents and their children. Children, in fact,
make up a quarter of the homeless population. A number of studies have shown
that the instability of their lives can lead to poor health, developmental
delays and greater risks for anxiety and depression. Especially disturbing is
the fact that requests for shelter and food cannot always be met; nearly a third
of the families seeking shelter are turned away for lack of resources. In San
Antonio, Tex., for example, families who can find no space in shelters sleep
under bridges, in parks or in cars. Much the same bleak scenario holds true for
food requests; because of the increased demand, emergency food agencies have
frequently had to cut back both on the amounts distributed and on the number of
times a month requests can be honored.

Twenty percent of those in shelters are employed either full or part-time. One
of the painful ironies of the situation is that in a number of cities--such as
Denver, Boston and Philadelphia--the strong economy has led landlords to raise
rents. As a result, parents employed in low-wage jobs are unable to pay for
rent, food and other necessities and therefore end up in shelters, not
infrequently separated from their children. As Philadelphia officials put it
with considerable understatement, "the rising economic tide is not lifting all
boats." The survey blames welfare reform to some degree for its negative effect
on both hunger and homelessness. People who have lost their welfare benefits
have not always found jobs with salaries sufficient to cover living costs; and
often they do not realize that they may still be eligible for food stamps and so
do not apply for them. The mayors' report, however, considers the main causes of
the increase in shelter populations and emergency food requests to be jobs that
pay too little and the lack of affordable housing. Other causes include
substance abuse and mental health problems that go unaddressed because of a lack
of needed services like case management, housing and treatment.

As if the difficulties of homeless people were not bad enough, another recent
report--released in early January by the National Law Center on Homelessness &
Poverty in Washington, D.C.--describes local governments' continuing efforts to
enact stringent anti-homeless legislation. The report, entitled "Out of
Sight--Out of Mind?", documents the increasing criminalization of homeless men
and women. The very title tells much of the story; many local governments try to
remove homeless people from the public eye as bad for business. This has been
particularly true of New York City, with its large concentrations of homeless
persons. There the mayor's emphasis on so-called quality of life crimes has
meant that homeless men and women have increasingly been pushed from affluent
sections of Manhattan into the poorer surrounding boroughs. Sweeps, the report
states, "continue on almost a nightly basis."

Not surprisingly, the National Law Center's survey cites New York as one of five
U.S. cities having the "meanest streets." The other four are Atlanta, Chicago,
San Francisco and Tucson. But the center's report also gives credit to several
cities whose officials are taking more constructive approaches. Dallas, for
instance, provides birth certificates to homeless people, even to those from out
of state, as a way of assisting them to apply for public housing. Public housing
applicants around the nation, though, face waiting lists that average two years
in length. The waiting period for Section 8 certificates, which provide not only
rental assistance but also wide freedom of choice as to where a family lives, is
almost three years. Even when families are lucky enough to obtain Section 8
certificates, however, not all landlords will honor them--a sign of the stigma
that dogs the lives of poor people throughout the nation.

Estimates of the number of people who are homeless on any given night range
between 600,000 and 760,000 nationwide. Funding to help the homeless has not
kept pace with the growing need. Little wonder, then, that--despite an increase
in shelter beds and food pantries--many requests for shelter and food go unmet.
In addition, another advocacy group, the National Coalition for the Homeless,
has pointed out that much of the existing funding focuses on emergency measures
rather than on addressing the causes of homelessness. One hopeful sign is that,
thanks to a substantial budget increase, the Department of Housing and Urban
Development is now able to provide housing vouchers for 90,000 more families.

Although the causes of homelessness are complex, the principal ones remain jobs
that do not pay a living wage, inadequate financial assistance for those who
cannot work, insufficient medical care for the mentally ill and addicted, and
the lack of affordable housing. Until these are addressed, homelessness will be
neither out of sight nor out of mind. Indeed, in its prediction for the new
year, the mayors' survey found that almost all the 30 cities surveyed expect the
demand for emergency shelter and food to quicken. Hunger and homelessness in a
prosperous United States is a disgrace. Voters need to tell their local, state
and national leaders that careful planning and funding must be focused on caring
for these people in need. Trying to make them invisible is no solution.

H. C. Covington @  I CAN! America
The Rural Resource Collaborative
P.O. Drawer 3444, Lafayette, LA 70502
Voice 1-318-781-0216