Food insecurity and homelessness in cities around the country spiked in the past year, a new report released Thursday has found.
According to the United States Conference of Mayors' annual Hunger and Homelessness Survey (pdf), 71 percent of the 25 cities surveyed saw an increase in requests for emergency food assistance—a majority of those coming from families. Low wages were the biggest cause of hunger among those cities, followed by poverty, unemployment, and high living costs.
"Again this year, despite the economic progress the nation as a whole is making, we anticipated that problems related to joblessness and other lingering effects of the recession would be reflected in the reports coming in from the survey cities—and they were," said Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider. "We have seen some extraordinary efforts by cities, private agencies, foundations, charities, and volunteers to cope with hunger and homelessness. But despite all efforts, the problems remain, as do our concerns about the future."
The report comes as low-pay workers around the country continue to call for an increase in minimum wage, marching through their cities and staging strikes and protests in front of fast food restaurants and retail stores. Among those who reported needing food assistance in Thursday's report, 38 percent were employed.
In a troubling dynamic highlighted in the report, the increased need for public services has arrived alongside a decrease in the capacity to meet them. More than 80 percent of emergency kitchens had to slash the amount of food an individual could take in one visit or per meal. Of the 25 cities surveyed, 21 said they expected food needs to increase in the next year.
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Homelessness also grew among both families and individuals, a trend that was primarily caused by the lack of affordable housing, the report found. Unemployment was also one of the leading factors, followed by poverty and the lack of needed services for those struggling with mental illness or substance abuse.
"It’s been more than three decades, and every report on these problems that we have published has reiterated a need for more services and more capacity to help growing numbers of families and individuals in need," said Conference CEO Tom Cochran. "This year is no different... [there's] no question that the slow pace of the recovery in past years has made it difficult—and, for many of our cities, impossible—to respond to the growing needs of hungry and homeless Americans."
The survey says it is not meant to be a representative sample of trends throughout the country, but its findings are corroborated by other recent reports. A USDA study published in September reported that 50 million Americans continued to struggle with food insecurity, despite the so-called economic recovery, and the National Coalition for the Homeless found that homelessness among children is higher now than at any point in U.S. history.
Schneider called on increased federal action and protection for those in need of emergency services. "We are very concerned about what could happen to our emergency food and shelter programs next year, and in the years beyond, if federal budgeting makes it harder, not easier, to meet our re sponsibilities to all of our people," she said. "But until our economy improves for all Americans, programs to combat poverty, hunger, and homelessness need to be protected—not compromised, not sacrificed—by our Congress."