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U.S. Mayors: Demand up for emergency food and housing

Thu, Jan 30, 2014


‘Slow pace of recovery’ make it difficult for cities to meet needs

Demand for emergency food and housing rose across 25 American cities last year, according to the 31st annual survey of the U.S. Conference of Mayors task force on Hunger and Homelessness.

“Unemployment” was the factor most cited as the reason for hunger and for homelessness among unaccompanied individuals by city officials who completed the survey for the year ending August 31. “Poverty” was the factor most often given for homelessness among families.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository

The Greater Chicago Food Depository partnered with the City of Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) in a change to its emergency food box program. Now, instead of DFSS handling the packaging and delivery, recipients can choose the convenient time and place to pick up food from a food pantry affiliated with the food depository. (Greater Chicago Food Depository Photo)

“We’re pleased, of course, that the unemployment rate has continued to drop during 2013,” said Tom Cochran, CEO and executive director of the Conference, in a telephone press conference. “But there are still too many unemployed workers in our cities, and this continues to add to the stress on emergency assistance programs. There’s no question that the nation’s economy is on the mend, but there’s also no question that the slow pace of recovery is making it difficult—and for many, impossible – to respond to the growing needs of the hungry and the homeless.”
The City of Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) provided local information for the U.S. Conference report, which was released in December. DFSS Spokesman Matt Smith said the compilation acknowledged challenges that all cities face since the economic downturn.

“The City of Chicago continues to work with its network of nonprofit service providers to expand assistance to residents in need – including innovative new programs that improve access to healthy food, supportive services and affordable housing,” Smith said. “This year, the City of Chicago also committed more than $7 million to expand shelters and drop-in centers for homeless youth, build the first new shelter for victims of domestic violence in a decade, and launch a program to rapidly rehouse more than 350 homeless families.”

All but four cities in this year’s survey reported that requests for emergency food assistance increased over last year, while three of the four said the demand stayed the same.

Just over half (52 percent) of the cities reported that they were purchasing fresh produce, along with foods lower in fat, sodium and sugar and higher in protein. Smith noted that the executive summary of the report pointed to the new DFSS Emergency Food Pantry Program, which expands the availability of fresh, healthy food through community food pantries. Chicago was also acknowledged for its efforts to place chronically homeless individuals and veterans into permanent housing, he said.

The new Emergency Food Pantry Program offers fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, beef, dairy products and a variety of other perishables and non-perishables.
Overnight, the City went from a distribution network of its own six sites and mobile outreach to 77 pantry locations administered by the Greater Chicago Food Depository. This network now includes more than 100 locations, which can accommodate perishables instead of just shelf-stable items, said Jim Conwell, GCFD spokesperson. The new system also saves the City the expense of boxing and wrapping foods; these savings can be put into fresher meals, Smith said.

The new partnership between DFSS and the food depository was announced in late June. In its first four months of operation, DFSS provided 528,439 additional pounds of food compared to the same period the year before. That equates to 440,366 meals, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture formula.

“Partnering with the Greater Chicago Food Depository allows the City to continue to provide this essential service through the most direct route to ensure we reach all community members who seek aid,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said.

“By making some simple modifications to our program, we are now able to serve a greater quantity and variety of healthier food at more locations with better hours,” said DFSS Commissioner Evelyn Diaz.

Chicago distributed 66.04 million pounds of food, a 4.1 percent increase over last year. However, requests rose by six percent. As a result, there were still turn aways of additional people, reduced quantities provided during each pantry visit or soup kitchen meal and fewer times per month that a person or family could visit. Officials said they expect demand to rise moderately next year, supplies to decrease moderately.

Other U.S. cities showed similar statistics:

• BOSTON, 15 million pounds of food distributed, a 9.1 percent increase in supply. Demand rose by seven percent for community meal programs and 13 percent for food pantries.
• LOS ANGELES, 53.42 million pounds of food distributed, a 10.5 percent increase that still resulted in turn aways from food pantries and emergency kitchens.
• NASHVILLE, 3.27 million pounds of food distributed, an 11 percent increase. Emergency requests remained on a par with last year but food pantries and emergency kitchens still had to turn additional people away or reduce the amount given during each visit. They also limited the number of visits per month.
• PHILADELPHIA, 14.31 million pounds of food, a 32 percent decrease, amid seven percent higher requests. One-quarter of the demand went unmet amid similar turn aways. City officials expect requests to increase substantially and resources to decrease moderately.
• PROVIDENCE, 4.4 million pounds, a five percent increase in supply but a six percent increase in demand. Next year, city officials anticipate a moderate increase in requests for food but a substantial decrease in resources.
• WASHINGTON, D.C, 47 million pounds, a 42 percent increase, amid a 12 percent increase in requests.

There were 22 cities that could project demand for emergency food assistance, and all but one expect the requests to increase next year. “Our cities’ outlook for the year ahead is decidedly pessimistic,” said Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, who co-chairs the Conference of Mayors Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness with Memphis Mayor A. C. Wharton.Budget for Emergency Food Assistance Over the Past Year

The biggest challenge the cities would face in addressing hunger, Schneider said, “would be cuts in SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits being considered by Congress and the inability of food assistance programs to meet the increased demand that would result.”

The SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps, is part of the five-year Farm Bill, which Congress extended by one month because the House and Senate were unable to come to agreement, said Diane Doherty, executive director of the Illinois Hunger Coalition. The Coalition is an advocacy organization that advises on policy and facilitates programs that help the hungry in this state.

The House wants a $40 billion cut in the food stamp program; the Senate wants a $10 billion reduction, Doherty said. Talks will resume after the holiday recess.

“We’re seeing partisanship in a way we never have before,” Doherty said. She said today’s political outlook on food stamps contrasts with the way they began: as an idea from U.S. Sens. Bob Dole (R-KS) and George McGovern (D-SD), who belonged to different political parties but who both came from agricultural states. They saw food stamps as an alternative to farmers destroying commodities – livestock or crops – which they couldn’t sell.

“What the House did was separate food stamps from the agricultural part of the bill which flies in the face of any effort to be bipartisan, the way the program was founded,” Doherty said. The conference committee of the House and Senate wanted to rejoin the pieces, the way they have been historically, she said.

Advocates would not like to see a one- or two-year extension of the current bill, Doherty said. “We want them to do a new five-year bill. There are some very scary requirements that basically anybody on food stamps who is not working 20 hours a week or more would no longer be able to be on the food stamp program.”

Doherty said there is talk that the federal program would incentivize states to take food stamp money and put it into a special employment and training program.

There is also talk of drug testing; the underlying premise is to make the program punitive, on the grounds that its recipients are unworthy.

“The assumption that there are people who are on the food stamp rolls who should not be is untenable,” she said.

Los Angeles officials responding to the U.S. Conference of Mayors survey wrote that many SNAP recipients are employed but likely at minimum wage jobs. “In an urban setting with higher-than-average living costs, the food budget is frequently the first to get cut as a family struggles to make ends meet.”

Chicago had a similar sentiment: “If enacted, it is highly likely that affected SNAP recipients would become dependent, or more dependent, on the emergency food network to sustain their food needs.”

Providence officials said the House proposal to cut SNAP benefits by $40 billion over 10 years could terminate 14,000 people from the program statewide and 10,000 in their city. “The emergency food programs in Providence are at capacity and will not be able to adequately serve this number of new people.”

Homeless Adults by CategoryLocal planning organizations known as “Continuums of Care” in 3,000 cities and counties across the U.S. conduct one-night counts of their sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations each year during January; the numbers are reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Between 2010 and 2013, this Point-in-Time count dropped 6.1 percent, to 610,042.

In 16 of 25 cities, the number of homeless families rose; the count of unaccompanied individuals rose in 13 of the 25 cities. They include:

• CHICAGO – numbers of homeless families are up 11.4 percent over last year. Family disputes, unemployment and poverty are the main reasons for individual homelessness. Domestic violence, family disputes and insufficient income are the most cited factors for households with children. Shelters have had to increase the number of persons or families who can sleep in a single room but no one has been turned away.
• BOSTON – homelessness among families is up 14 percent and among individuals 13 percent. Shelters have increased the number of individuals and families who can sleep in a room, in chairs and in hallways, have distributed vouchers for hotels and have turned away both individuals and families with children.
• LOS ANGELES – homeless families are down 23 percent but homelessness among individuals is up 40 percent.
• NASHVILLE – homeless families are up 25 percent and homeless individuals are up three percent. Officials have also doubled up shelter accommodations, turned away families and individuals. They estimate 30 percent of shelter demand has been unmet.
• WASHINGTON, D.C. – homeless families up 7.4 percent and individuals also up 8.5 percent amid doubled up accommodations and turn aways of both families and individuals.

Homelessness among veterans has declined dramatically since 2010 – 24.2 percent – thanks to a myriad of services. HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) is permanent, supportive housing and treatment. The VA Homeless Grant and Per Diem funds community-based agencies providing transitional housing or service centers for homeless veterans. Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) awards grants to private non-profits that can assist very low-income veteran families living in or transitioning to permanent housing.Number of Unaccompanied Individuals and Persons in Families who Entered Permanent Supportive Housing Over Past Year

These resources support a goal set in 2009 by President Obama and Dept. of Veterans Affairs Sec. Eric K. Shinseki to end homelessness among former military personnel by 2015. Thirteen of the 25 U.S. Mayors Conference cities say this goal is achievable.

Others, however, note that the number of young vets is not static: more than 300,000 troops will come home in the next few years. In addition, a disproportionate number of homeless vets were dishonorably discharged. A behavioral health issue acquired during service may have caused this discharge status, but it will disqualify a veteran from VA services and subsidies.

A Chicago intergovernmental program that encompassed veterans was highlighted in the executive summary of the U.S. Conference report. Chicago DFSS, along with the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center and Chicago Housing Authority, met in a two-day boot camp to help homeless service providers more effectively link vets and chronically homeless people to permanent supportive housing programs. The group then established a 100-day action plan to increase its housing placement rate with the help of over 50 private, non-profit supportive housing agencies that did street and shelter outreach or provided units. Between June 1 and August 31, 400 individuals and families (including 243 veterans) were moved off the streets and into housing.

Chicago plans to maintain its housing placement momentum through sustained 100-day action plans. In addition, the Corporation for Supportive Housing in Chicago manages a centralized, Web-based application process for units. Priority placement goes to medically vulnerable individuals.

Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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