Cities across the nation have seen an increase in homelessness over the past year, with some communities citing the foreclosure crisis as a factor in the growing numbers, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ annual report on hunger and homelessness.
Twenty-five cities participated in the latest survey, with 19 reporting a rise in homelessness. On average, cities reported a 12 percent increase.
The outlook for 2009 isn’t much better.
“It is unclear how general trends in the economy will affect the prevalence of homelessness in the coming year,” noted the report. “However, with the economy in a recession and unemployment rising, it is likely that the need for homeless services will remain steady if not increase.”
Cities were asked to identify the three main causes of homelessness in families and for single adults. For families, the three top causes were the lack of affordable housing, which was cited by 72 percent of the cities; poverty, 52 percent; and unemployment, 44 percent. The top two causes remain the same from a year ago, but unemployment replaced domestic violence for the third spot.
When it came to homeless individuals, the top causes were substance abuse, lack of affordable housing, and mental illness.
The study includes a special focus on the demand for government-subsidized housing and the effect of foreclosures. Sixty-three percent of the cities that reported seeing more homelessness cited foreclosures as a reason for the increase. However, many cities did not have enough data to quantify the extent of the problem.
The cities were clear on what is needed to combat homelessness. The top answers were more permanent supportive housing for persons with disabilities, 72 percent; more or better paying jobs, 68 percent; and more mainstream assisted housing, 64 percent.
All but one of the cities surveyed had developed or was developing a 10-year plan to end homelessness.
The report also shows that requests for emergency food assistance went up in nearly every city. Perhaps most distressing was that 21 cities with available data cited an increase in the number of persons requesting food for the first time. The increase was particularly notable among working families.
Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), called the findings “sobering.” “It mirrors conversations that NAEH has had with cities in the past six months, indicating significant spikes in homelessness in some places,” she said in a statement. “Those interviewed for the conference report reinforce the view that the recession coupled with the home foreclosure crisis is causing increased homelessness. Because there is typically a lag time between a family crisis and the onset of homelessness, sadly we expect to see the number increase.”
Roman added that the findings were especially tragic because chronic homelessness had been reduced about 30 percent between 2005 and 2007, and homelessness overall was trending downward.