WASHINGTON — Homelessness increased sharply this year across the nation, especially among families with children and low-wage workers, according to a study of Los Angeles and 25 other cities released Wednesday by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
The report called on Congress to avoid cuts in programs for the homeless and urged the federal government to fund construction of more low-cost housing for thousands of Americans now living on the streets and in cars, shelters and public parks.
"This problem is getting worse, even though there have been strong efforts by local officials and volunteers to cope with homelessness in our cities," said Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, who heads a task force on the issue and discussed the report at a press conference. "Without major intervention by the federal government, this problem will not be solved. We're talking about basic aid, food and shelter for the neediest people in this country."
Cuts Would Be 'Unfair'
Flynn added that it would be "deeply unfair" if homeless programs--including emergency food and shelter assistance, housing construction and other services--were gutted as part of Congress' budget-cutting initiatives. The federal budget deficit, he said, "didn't happen as a result of assistance to these poor people . . . we have to spare them."
Although Congress appropriated $355 million for the homeless earlier this year, most of the money has been spent and the need is still acute, Flynn said. At the very least, he added, legislators should pledge to spend a similar amount for the coming year.
In the survey, local officials were asked about the extent of homelessness in their communities and about their efforts to cope with the problem. Virtually all cities, ranging from Boston, New York and Chicago to smaller communities like Norfolk, Va., and Louisville, Ky., reported that the homeless problem has worsened notably in the last 12 months.
A key finding was that more than one-third of the homeless in American cities are children and their parents, an increase from previous years, according to the report. Just as important, more than 70% of all cities surveyed said that families are the one group for which emergency shelter and other services are most frequently lacking.
Flynn said a major reason is that many cities are not equipped to provide shelter for children, adding that the problem is aggravated by the chronic shortage of low-cost housing for many families "living on the economic margins."
Subsidies Cut Sharply
The inability of many families to find shelter "should not come as a surprise," he said, noting that, since 1985, the federal government has cut subsidies to build low-cost housing to $8 billion from $35 billion.
Cities reported also that a new group, "the working poor," is showing up frequently in surveys of public shelters and food kitchen lines across America.
"We are seeing more working people who leave homeless shelters every day and walk to work," Flynn said, adding that the U.S. Conference of Mayors has recommended a significant increase in the minimum wage to lift such individuals from the ranks of the homeless.
In other findings, the survey showed that more than two-thirds of the cities responding regularly turn away homeless people seeking food because the cities do not have enough resources and are frequently overwhelmed by the number of persons in need. All said that they expect the demand for emergency soup kitchens to increase significantly next year.
Los Angeles officials reported that funds for emergency food decreased by 20% this year. However, the overall amount of food provided to the homeless remained the same, largely because of increasing food donations from outside the area. Still, the city's largest emergency food provider reported a 50% drop in donations.
Meanwhile, the demand for emergency shelter beds increased significantly in virtually all of the cities, including a 25% rise in Los Angeles. The cities surveyed said that several trends were responsible for the growing demand, including unemployment, the lack of adequate low-cost housing and a chronic shortage of services for mentally ill people wandering the streets.
In the last year, the number of shelter beds increased in more than three-fourths of the cities surveyed, ranging from 11% in Los Angeles to 47% in Boston. On any given night, city shelters are filled to capacity, with more than 1,000 parents and children sheltered in Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago and more than 13,700 in New York.
Not Enough Beds
But the availability of beds continues to lag behind the need. In-Fo-Line, a Los Angeles homeless referral agency, reported that it had to turn away 39% of those seeking emergency shelter during the first six months of 1987.
Elsewhere, Cleveland reported that single men are often turned away on cold winter nights because of a shortage of shelter beds and that women and children have occasionally been turned away in the summer, also because of a lack of space.