22 Mayors Weigh In on Escalating Levels of Homelessness and Hunger

A new report details the unmet basic needs of people in major American cities.

A police car stops beside tents on Skid Row in Los Angeles on Sept. 23. (Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty Images/AFP)

Dec 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Los Angeles pledged to do it in September, and Seattle and Portland, Oregon, followed suit shortly after.

But unlike other trends sweeping the nation, declaring a state of emergency for homelessness isn’t something these cities are likely to be proud of. New data shows that the West Coast metropolises are not alone in their housing crises.

An annual report published on Tuesday by the nonpartisan group United States Conference of Mayors details the escalating challenges facing 22 of the country’s most populous cities in meeting the needs of those who lack basic necessities such as food and shelter.

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Across the cities surveyed, an estimated average of 25 percent of the demand for emergency shelters went unmet in the past year. Because of the lack of sleeping arrangements, more than 75 percent of the survey cities reported turning away homeless families with children from emergency shelters during the same time period.

A majority of mayors reported an overall increase in their city’s homeless population, with an average bump of about 1.6 percent over the past 12 months. The leading cause of homelessness among families, city officials said, was a shortage of affordable housing, followed by poverty, unemployment, and low-wage jobs.

Helene Schneider, the mayor of Santa Barbara, California, and a cochair on the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ task force on homelessness and hunger, said the numbers didn’t come as a total shock but were further evidence of a lagging economy. “Even with exemplary local programs in place to help those in need, the effects of hunger and homelessness are still felt by many families across the nation,” she said during a telephone press conference on Tuesday in which she called for more federal assistance for the urban homelessness crisis.

Families in many of the country’s largest urban centers aren’t just struggling to keep a roof over their heads but also to put food on the table. Sixty-six percent of the cities surveyed reported an increase in the number of requests for emergency food assistance in the past year, and in nearly half of the cities, emergency kitchens and food pantries reported cutting down on the amount of food people could receive during each visit to accommodate a spike in need. City leaders again blamed low wages and unaffordable housing as the prime causes of hunger.

The report comes as the labor group Fight for $15 has ramped up efforts to campaign for a $15 hourly minimum wage in cities across the country. Thousands of fast-food workers took to the streets of Los Angeles last month to call for higher monthly pay and the protection of a union, and on Black Friday, more than 200 employees from at least a dozen Walmart stores around the country fasted to protest low pay. As wages have stagnated, housing prices have skyrocketed around the country, squeezing out low-income and middle-class renters in cities from San Francisco to Miami.

The mayors of Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland have taken note. Within a span of three months, each city announced plans to declare a state of emergency for the homeless, as did the state of Hawaii. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged to dedicate at least $100 million to reducing the city’s homeless population, which experienced a 12 percent bump in the last two years alone. But unlike Seattle and Portland, which have vowed to spend millions on emergency housing plans, Los Angeles has yet to make the declaration official, the Los Angeles Times has pointed out.

More than half of the cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors said they anticipated requests for emergency food assistance to moderately increase over the next year. Meanwhile, about half said they expected the number of homeless families to continue to rise during the same period.

“As the national economy has changed, the face of hunger and homelessness has changed,” Schneider said in the press call. She said that programs to alleviate poverty, homelessness, and hunger are essential and urged Congress to create policies to address the issue.