Report: Cities Lack Resources to Provide Adequate Food, Shelter

A U.S. Conference of Mayors study finds that more than 80 percent of surveyed cities turned away hungry people because they lacked the resources to serve them.
by | December 16, 2011

A new study finds that cities across the country are experiencing increased demand for emergency food aid and shelter, but the lack the resources to fulfill it.

The report, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, examines programs serving low-income populations in 29 American cities from September 2010 through August 2011.

Its results paint a much more grim portrait of poverty in America that a study released by federal government earlier this week that found homelessness down 2.1 percent this year and 5.3 percent since 2007 and attributed those improvements to initiatives carried out by the stimulus act.

The mayors’ report documents how ill-equipped cities and the non-profits they work with are at handling the demand for aid that has surged in post-recession America.

More than a quarter of the people who needed emergency food aid in the surveyed cities didn’t receive it, and more than 80 percent of the cities reportedly turned away hungry people because they lacked the resources to serve them.

Meanwhile, an average of 18 percent of homeless people in the surveyed cities who needed housing assistance couldn’t get it. Because of a lack of beds, shelters in two-thirds of the cities turned away homeless families.

“Here is the richest country in the world – we have people who cannot find a place to live, and we are failing to address it,” said Kansas City, Mo. Mayor Sly James in a conference call with reporters Thursday. “The numbers are increasing, not decreasing.” In James’ hometown, the number of emergency food assistance request increased more than any other city in the survey, surging by 40 percent.

Overall, the portion of Americans living in poverty rose from 14.3 percent to 15.1 percent last year, according to Census estimates.

The situation facing cities is unlikely to improve in the near future: almost all the cities expect the demand for food aid to increase next year, yet three-fourths of them report that their resources to provide that aid will decrease. On average, food assistance requests were up 15.5 percent over the year.

The report details steps cities are taking to try to reconcile their needs with their budgets. In San Francisco, food assistance programs have had to cut corners and offer lower-cost food. Instead of chicken, residents get beans or sausage, and the program stopped providing bread and cheese. In Trenton,N.J. the food bank has limited the variety of foods in offers due to financial pressures. And in Washington, D.C., more than 70 percent of the demand for food assitance goes unmet.

Yet the federal government may struggle to help cities cope with the problem. Some federal programs that aid low-income residents – such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)  – are exempt for the mandatory federal budget cuts set to take effect just over a year from now. But others aren’t, including the affordable housing programs run by Department of Housing and Urban Development, explained Gene Lowe, assistant executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Officials with the U.S. Conference of Mayors note that the study isn't a representative sample of the country at-large. But it does provide a compelling look at the state for the poor in the country’s population centers.


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