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Homelessness, hunger worsen, mayors' report finds

Emergency needs for food, shelter rise for families

WASHINGTON -- The US Conference of Mayors painted a dismal picture yesterday of growing homelessness and hunger among low-income, working families and reported a dramatic decrease in 2003 in the ability of most of the nation's 25 major cities to meet these basic needs.

"This survey underscores the impact the economy has had on everyday Americans," said conference president James A. Garner, the mayor of Hempstead, N.Y. Garner said a recovering economy will not immediately solve state and local budget shortfalls or reverse cutbacks in social-service programs. "We don't expect it to get any better next year."

The conference's annual survey found that in nearly all the cities, requests for emergency food assistance have increased by an average of 17 percent over last year, and the demand for emergency shelter rose by an average of 13 percent.

More than half of the cities surveyed reported that emergency food assistance facilities had to either turn people away or limit the groceries families could receive on each visit. Of those requesting food help, 59 percent were families and 39 percent were employed, the report said.

In 84 percent of the cities surveyed, shelters reported turning away homeless families because of too few beds and other resources. Officials estimated that 30 percent of requests for shelter by homeless people, and 33 percent of the requests by homeless families were unmet, according to the Conference of Mayors report.

Philip Mangano, an advocate for the homeless in Boston before he became the Bush administration's point person on the issue last year, said the pattern of growing needs, reported year after year by the Conference of Mayors, shows the "insanity" of traditional strategies for temporarily sheltering the homeless. He called for a new approach based on permanent housing and directed social services.

"We are all tired of homelessness, and no more so than the homeless people themselves," Mangano said at a news conference yesterday, vowing to "end this national disgrace."

Mangano is the chief spokesman for a 10-year administration plan to attack chronic homelessness by focusing resources and services on the most vulnerable and costly population -- the disabled, mentally ill, and substance abusers -- and using results-driven techniques to end homelessness, not just manage it.

At its annual meeting last summer, the Conference of Mayors endorsed the 10-year plan, and more than 60 cities and counties are now in stages of developing their own blueprints to bring public agencies, private foundations, faith-based and secular groups into partnerships to aid the chronically homeless, Mangano said.

Last week, Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced he is establishing a cabinet-level task force to start that process in Boston. In Atlanta, where the 10-year plan was launched last year, private foundations have pledged $6.2 million to the city initiative, Mangano said.

"Groups that were at the table 20 years ago left because they didn't see results-oriented solutions," Mangano said. "Now businesses, corporations, and foundations are coming back because they see there is a specific intention to end chronic homelessness."

In November, Governor Mitt Romney joined 39 other governors when he created an interagency council of top officials charged with redirecting state policies on homelessness. It is being chaired by Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey and follows a report from an executive commission that recommended moving from a system of sheltering the homeless to finding them transitional housing and support services that would prevent homelessness in the first place.

When visible on the streets, homelessness can be a political nightmare for local officials. The Bush administration reactivated the dormant Interagency Council on Homelessness because there was no coordination of the millions of federal dollars for mental health services, substance abuse prevention, job training, and prison release programs that are aimed at the homeless population but have not reduced it. The administration provided $35 million in new homeless grants to 11 cities this summer, and President Bush requested $70 million in his 2004 budget.

Advocates for the homeless credit Mangano, the executive director of the council, with bringing visibility to the issue and using business models to engage GOP lawmakers and conservative foundations in long-range problem-solving. "Without question, Philip is getting the conversation going and bringing in some nontraditional groups," said Joe Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Shelter and Housing Alliance, the job Mangano once held in Boston.

In the annual one-night census of Boston's homeless, conducted earlier this month, city officials reported that the population of more than 6,000 had fallen 1.1 percent from last year. Menino said that could reflect a decrease in the number of shelter beds and stricter requirements on homeless families seeking emergency accommodations in hotels and motels. "Where are the hidden homeless?" he asked.

The Conference of Mayors reported an 8.3 percent increase in requests by families for emergency shelter in Boston in 2003, compared to a 19 percent increase in Washington, D.C., a 30 percent increase in Denver, and a 109 percent increase in Louisville, Ky.

The mayors' report noted a 24 percent increase in Boston in emergency food demands by families, with a 5 percent increase in unmet needs for groceries.

Ellen Parker, executive director of Project Bread in Boston, said the statistics suggest that the working poor can't make ends meet. "The economy is getting better, but I don't think things are getting better for poor people," she said.

Mary Leonard can be reached at mleonard@globe.com.

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