Four of five cities say requests for food aid rose an average of 12% from the previous year, according to the survey for the period covering November 2006 through October 2007. Most cities had reported a jump in such requests the prior year as well.
Ten of 14 cities with data on homeless families say more families with children sought emergency shelter and transitional housing. About half of the cities say their overall homeless problem increased. Collectively, the cities report giving shelter to 193,183 people.
"We're heading in the wrong direction because of poverty, unemployment and housing costs," says Trenton Mayor Douglas Palmer, president of the mayors conference. He added that the full effects of record mortgage foreclosures have yet to be seen. The report does cite some progress. Of 11 cities with data on homeless adults seeking shelter, five — Louisville; Nashville; Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle — report a decline. Also, the length of stays in shelters and transitional housing for single adults and families shortened.
Last month, the federal government reported a 12% decline in the number of chronically homeless adults who live on the streets or in emergency shelters. The number fell to 155,623 in January 2006 from 175,914 in January 2005, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson says the numbers "show remarkable progress is being made." He attributed the decline to better reporting and more local and federal resources for permanent housing, health care and other services.
Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie takes little comfort in HUD's numbers.
He says chronically homeless adults account for only 10% of all homeless people. "There are still more people needing help."
The mayors' report is limited because it surveys only 23 cities, each of which collects data differently, says Mark Nord, lead author of an annual food security report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA's most recent report, released last month, says 4% of households lacked adequate access to food in 2006, about the same as in 2005.
It also found, however, that the number of households obtaining food from community providers rose 26% from 2001 to 2006, and the number of households having the least access to food rose 32%, or 1.3 million, during that time. USDA data do not include the homeless.
Most of the 205 food banks that belong to America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest hunger-relief group, say demand has risen at least 20% this year, according to group spokesman Ross Fraser.
"Even in places like New Hampshire, which you wouldn't think of as needy, the demand is way up," Fraser says. He says financial contributions have held steady but food donations, including those from the USDA, have fallen. At this rate, he says, food banks will fall nearly 12 million meals short this year.