Hunger, Homelessness Continue to Rise in U.S. Cities

An annual report shows Washington, D.C., led the nation this year in increases in emergency food assistance requests and homelessness. See how your city compares.
by | December 11, 2014

Hunger and homelessness continued to increase in U.S. cities in 2014, but not by as much as previous years, according to the latest annual survey from the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Despite a steady drop in the unemployment rate and the number of people out of work for 27 weeks or more, 71 percent of cities surveyed reported that requests for emergency food assistance increased over the past year, averaging 7 percent. Forty-three percent of cities reported an increase in homelessness, averaging 3 percent.

Those increases are down from 2013 and 2012, but mayors are still struggling to meet the needs of those who aren’t benefitting from the economic recovery, said Tom Cochran, the Conference’s CEO and executive director. “There’s no question that the nation’s economy is on the mend,” he said in a conference call with reporters. “But there’s also 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.”

Requests for emergency food assistance increased in 83 percent of cities surveyed in 2013 and in 82 percent of cities in 2012. Homelessness rose by 52 percent in cities surveyed in 2013 and 60 percent in 2012. While the number of long-term unemployed has fallen by more than a million and the overall unemployment rate has fallen from 7 percent to 5.8 percent in the past year, the poverty rate is still 2-percent higher than its 2007 level and has remained basically static for three years.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors surveys 25 cities every year on homelessness and hunger, as well as their budgetary capacity to provide services. Most of the cities surveyed -- ranging from small (Asheville, N.C.), to medium (Denver), to large (Los Angeles) -- remain the same each year.

The largest increases in requests for emergency food assistance came from Washington, D.C., at 56 percent, Philadelphia (20 percent), Salt Lake City (16 percent) and Charlotte (12.5 percent). High housing costs were cited as the top reason for D.C.’s spike. The only city to see a major decrease in requests for emergency food assistance was San Antonio at 18 percent. The city had the sixth lowest unemployment rate of those surveyed, but its poverty rate was still 20 percent.

Thirty-eight percent of those requesting emergency food assistance were employed, and low wages led the list of causes among cities surveyed. A number of states, both conservative and liberal, raised the minimum wage in the recent mid-term elections. Many cities have supported raising the minimum wage, with Chicago becoming the most recent new addition.

D.C. also topped the list of surveyed cities for increases in homelessness, at 12.9 percent. Dallas followed at 11.5 percent. Most cities experienced far smaller increases in homelessness or decreases, ranging from a 3.8-percent increase in Boston to a 17-percent decrease in Charlotte.

Homelessness overall is down nationally over the past five years, particularly among veterans, at 33 percent, as cities and the federal government have focused on ending veteran homelessness, said Richard Cho, senior policy director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. The latest Congressional spending plan includes a slight increase in funding for housing vouchers for veterans but not an overall increase in funding for affordable housing units, Cho said.

But Congress recently slashed funding for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a program that cities view as a critical component of fighting hunger. Key among the concerns of mayors is whether Congress will maintain or strengthen support for programs aimed at fighting hunger and homelessness, said Helene Schneider, the mayor of Santa Barbara, CA and the co-chair of Conference task force on those issues.

No cities surveyed said they expect emergency food requests to decrease next year, with eighteen cities reporting they expect requests to increase moderately next year. Four cities said they expect funding for food to increase moderately, while 10 anticipate funding to remain static and nine expect it will decrease.

Homelessness Survey Results

City Homeless Persons Change Homeless Families Change Unaccompanied Individuals Change
Asheville same +10% -10%
Boston +3.8% +5.8% +3.8%
Charleston -5% -3% -4%
Charlotte -17% -27% -8%
Chicago +1% same +5%
Cleveland +6% +14% +1.5%
Dallas +11.5% +32% -5%
Denver +7% +9% +5%
Des Moines -12% -9.80% -7.10%
Los Angeles +0.3% -11.70% +2.9%
Louisville -2% +9.6% -2.70%
Nashville +5% +5% +5%
Norfolk +2.96% -0.80% +14%
Phoenix same same same
Plano +21% same same
Providence -9% -7% -7%
Saint Paul -2% same same
Salt Lake City +0.8% +3.3% -0.40%
San Antonio -3% +19% -12%
San Francisco +0.4% -19% same
Santa Barbara same same same
Trenton +decreased% +decreased% same
Washington, D.C. +12.9% +25.2% +7%
SOURCE: U.S. Conference of Mayors 2014 Status Report on Hunger & Homelessness
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