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Phila. food and shelter needs rose sharply in last year

News Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer

Requests for emergency food assistance in Philadelphia increased by 41 percent in the last year.

At the same time, one-third of the demand for shelter among the homeless here went unmet.

Both findings were included in a new U.S. Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness Survey, released Thursday.

The report surveys hunger and homelessness in 25 cities between September 2011 and August 2012.

Continued hard times fostered by a still-sluggish economy playing havoc with poor and working-class people lay at the heart of the findings, local experts in both hunger and homelessness said. Exacerbating hunger problems were last year’s cuts to the state General Assistance program, one expert said.

“This increase is the worst it’s ever been,” according to Steveanna Wynn, executive director of the SHARE Food Program, which distributes food to pantries in Philadelphia. Wynn was the city-designated expert who provided the hunger figures for the survey.

“In the last year, we saw a brand-new 26,000 households [about 56,000 individuals] needing food who never did before,” Wynn said.

Much of the difference is attributable to Philadelphians who lost their jobs or were forced to move from full-time to part-time work, Wynn said. “These people never in their wildest dreams thought they’d have to go to a food cupboard,” she added.

Gov. Corbett’s decision to cut General Assistance benefits also accounts for the increased need in emergency food, said Carey Morgan, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

“Any time a public benefit like General Assistance is cut, you see the impact by people needing more emergency food,” Morgan said. “To see that much of a startling increase in need in a year is appalling.”

Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, the region’s largest antihunger agency, said long-term unemployment – as well as underemployment – was forcing people to food cupboards.

“The new normal here is large groups of people hanging on by their fingernails,” Clark said.

Regarding homelessness, the survey showed that about 33 percent of Philadelphians’ demand for shelter went unmet in the last year.

That means about 1,000 families and single women who arrived at shelters seeking beds in the last year were asked to make other arrangements, according to Roberta Cancellier, deputy director in the city’s Office of Supportive Housing. Cancellier was the city homelessness expert who provided data for the survey.

Overall, unmet need for shelter nearly doubled between this year and last, Cancellier said.

“There’s an affordable-housing crisis in Philadelphia,” compelling people who can’t pay their rents to look for shelters, Cancellier said.

Joe Willard, vice president of policy at the People’s Emergency Center, a social-service organization for the homeless, said part of the problem was that the city was no longer getting federal stimulus funds to underwrite a homelessness-prevention program.

Things are not expected to improve for residents in need of food, shelter, or both, Morgan said.

“Congress is considering cutting food stamps,” she said. “Things could all be culminating in a great disaster. It’s all kind of disgusting.”

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