What hunger and homelessness look like in America’s cities

December 11, 2013

Amanda Aubin and Cody Allison carry $70 of groceries, paid for with food stamps, to their apartment in Rhode Island. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post.)

Food pantries and other aid organizations are already having trouble meeting an increased demand for help, and a federal cut to food stamp benefits will only make things worse, according to a survey of mayors conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

While not a representative sample, the survey of 25 mayors offers a snapshot of the state of hunger in at least some of America’s big cities and reflects the nationally high rates of insufficient access to food.

Requests for help were up an average of 7 percent among the 25 big cities* in the survey, located in 18 states and D.C. Only one city reported a decline, while three said demand was unchanged. All but one city expect requests for food assistance to rise over the next year. Here’s a look at the portrait the survey paints of hunger in the nation’s urban centers:

Who are the hungry?

Some 43 percent were employed, 21 percent were elderly, and 9 percent were homeless.

Why are they hungry?

Lack of employment was the No. 1 cause given for hunger, followed by low wages, poverty, and a high cost of housing.

What resources are available for the hungry?

Budgets hardly increased — less than 1 percent — for emergency food aid across the 25 cities. In all, the 25-city budget for emergency assistance was $324 million.

Emergency kitchens and food pantries in every city cut the amount of food they doled out per meal or per visit. And, in two out of every three cities, those facilities turned people away due to a lack of resources.

Who wasn’t helped?

Almost exactly one in five people who needed food aid didn’t get it.

How can hunger be reduced?

Boosting employment was the most frequently cited potential solution, with 73 percent of the cities promoting it as a means of solving high rates of hunger. Next was increasing federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, which was cited by 59 percent of the cities, followed by providing more affordable housing (55 percent), and more employment training programs (45 percent). SNAP benefits were cut at the end of October and could shrink further, a fact that mayors say would hit children and the elderly as well as adults.

What do cities expect?

Nearly three in four cities, 72 percent, expect to see resources decline over the next year. More than a fourth of those expect a “substantial” decrease, and 45 percent expect a “moderate” one.

Who were the homeless?

The survey also looked at homelessness. Thirty percent of homeless adults were severely mentally ill, 17 percent physically disabled, 16 percent victims of domestic violence, and 3 percent were HIV positive. Nearly one in five — 19 percent — was employed, and 13 percent were veterans. On average, 22 percent of the homeless did not get the assistance they needed.

* The full list of cities and mayors represented follows:

Asheville, NC – Mayor Esther Manheimer
Boston, MA – Mayor Thomas M. Menino
Charleston, SC – Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr.
Charlotte, NC – Mayor Patrick Cannon
Chicago, IL – Mayor Rahm Emanuel
Cleveland, OH – Mayor Frank G. Jackson
Dallas, TX – Mayor Mike Rawlings
Denver, CO – Mayor Michael Hancock
Des Moines, IA – Mayor Frank Cownie
Los Angeles, CA – Mayor Eric Garcetti
Louisville, KY – Mayor Greg Fischer
Memphis, TN – Mayor A.C. Wharton, Jr.
Nashville, TN – Mayor Karl Dean
Norfolk, VA – Mayor Paul D. Fraim
Philadelphia, PA – Mayor Michael A. Nutter
Phoenix, AZ – Mayor Greg Stanton
Plano, TX – Mayor Harry LaRosiliere
Providence, RI – Mayor Angel Taveras
Saint Paul, MN – Mayor Chris Coleman
Salt Lake City, UT – Mayor Ralph Becker
San Antonio, TX – Mayor Julian Castro
San Francisco, CA – Mayor Edwin M. Lee
Santa Barbara, CA – Mayor Helene Schneider
Trenton, NJ – Mayor Tony Mack
Washington, DC – Mayor Vincent C. Gray

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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