Hunger, Homelessness Increase Nationwide

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) — If you have a roof over your head and food to eat, you probably have more reason to be thankful than many Americans this holiday season.

The number of Americans who were homeless this year increased by 2%, according to a new survey of 27 cities nationwide from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Moreover, the number of families who went homeless rose by 9%.

More than half of the cities surveyed reported rising rates of homelessness among individuals and families, with some cities like Charleston, S.C., experiencing a massive 81% increase in homeless families from the previous year.

On an average night, there were 27,102 homeless people on the streets in these 27 cities, with about 20,000 more in emergency shelters, and another 12,000 or so in transitional housing. On top of this, there were another 27,000 homeless people in one of these places who were part of families.

The findings in this report are based on data provided by city officials from major metropolitan areas like Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, highlighting the daunting hunger and homelessness problems in their region.

Many Americans across the country have lost their financial footing in recent years due to the recession. Earlier this year, the Census Bureau reported that 14.3% of the country lived in poverty in 2009, the highest level in 16 years. And more recently, the Working Poor Families Project found that nearly a third of all American families have fallen into the low income bracket, earning less than 200% above the poverty level.

The leading cause of homelessness among families in these cities, according to the Mayors’ report, was unemployment, followed by a lack of affordable housing and poverty.

These factors were also likely responsible for the increase in demand for food assistance programs. In 2009, 50 million people lived in households that struggled to put food on the table and in August of this year, some 42 million Americans were forced to rely on food stamps, an increase of 17% from the previous year.

Some of the cities surveyed experienced even greater increases in hunger rates, with Des Moines, Iowa, and Philadelphia reporting a 60% rise in demand for emergency food assistance programs.

In fact, things got so bad in Philadelphia that roughly half of all feeding programs do not have enough food to meet the demands of hungry residents, and 40% of the coordinators at these food centers confessed to sometimes throwing in their own money to help the program pay for food.

Part of the problem is that while demand has increased, the ability of local nonprofits and charities to raise money has gone down because more citizens are strapped for cash themselves.

Unfortunately, these problems may only get worse in the coming year. The majority of the cities surveyed (69%) expect the need for emergency food assistance to increase in 2011, with more than a quarter expecting that increase to be substantial. Similarly, about three quarters expect the number of homeless individuals and families to increase as well.

Still, there is some reason to be hopeful, as cities around the country try to find new and innovative ways to deal with the problem of homelessness and hunger. Boston, for example, has instituted a non-eviction policy for certain foreclosed properties, while many other cities have successfully used stimulus funds to provide more outreach and build more shelters. Of course, these tactics deal mostly with the symptoms of poverty and homelessness, not with the causes.

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