WASHINGTON — The number of families seeking emergency shelter has risen dramatically--by an average of 31%--in all but one of 29 major cities over the last two years, and officials of all but two of those cities expect the problem to grow still worse in the year ahead, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported Saturday.
The conference, giving the results of a survey, said that officials of every city cited a dwindling supply of affordable housing as a prime cause of homelessness. Several said that the shortage was being aggravated by demolitions, renovations and reductions in federal aid to public housing. Unemployment, poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy were mentioned as factors, as well as shortcomings in public assistance programs.
Shortages of low-rent housing were reported by cities with both high and low unemployment. In Boston, where the unemployment rate was a favorable 4.2% in February, the rental vacancy rate was reported to be under 3%.
New York, with 6% unemployment, had a 1.6% vacancy rate in low-income housing, and Seattle, with 7.3% unemployed, reported a year's wait for low-rent, one-bedroom apartments. Seattle officials said that 2,300 families were waiting to get into low-rent dwellings with two or more bedrooms.
Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, San Francisco, Boston and Washington were among the cities that responded to the 21-question survey, which the mayors' conference circulated last month. Only Minneapolis reported no increase in the number of requests for emergency shelter. Officials of that city and of Louisville, Ky., were the only respondents who did not predict further growth of their homeless populations.
The survey found that families made up just over a third of the homeless living in the cities surveyed, and that about two-thirds of these families were headed by a single adult.
Estimates of the overall homeless population vary from 250,000, the Reagan Administration's figure, to 3 million, advanced by the Committee for Creative Non-Violence.
In the Los Angeles area, the report said, a typical homeless family is "of minority identity, led by a single mother in her late 20s or early 30s who had probably very low or no income before the episode of homelessness began." The report said it was "very likely" that such a family would lack "sufficient money to rent housing at market rates."
All of the cities surveyed reported an increase in the number of families living with friends or relatives, and the report said that "every city considers these families to be at high risk of becoming homeless in the near future."
Once a family becomes homeless, its problems multiply. The principal alternative is municipal shelters. Although 20 of the cities surveyed have expanded shelter capacity in the last two years--by an average of 21%--the report said that the increase often has not equaled needs.
According to the report, two-thirds of all municipal shelters break up the families they house. In Los Angeles, it said, there is a "critical shortage of shelter space for intact families," and some shelters accept mothers with children but send fathers to shelters for men only.
Seventeen cities linked being homeless to serious problems with schooling. In Los Angeles, the report said, the Travelers Aid Society found that 43% of school-age children from homeless families were absent from classes, and that homeless children who did go to school were liable to be sent away "because they were dirty."