WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com)–They could not go home for the holidays. They are hungry. They depend on the charity of others to eat. They are the homeless in the land of plenty.

Facing the threat of increased hypothermia and a severely cold winter caused by the so-called “El Niño” weather pattern, their needs as well as their numbers are increasing at the highest rate in a decade, according to a national survey.

Requests for emergency food assistance increased an average of 19 percent over the past year, according to a 25-city survey released Dec. 18 by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In addition, the survey found that requests for emergency shelter assistance grew an average of 19 percent in the 18 cities that reported an increase.


“The world’s richest and most powerful nation must find a way to meet the basic needs of all its residents,” said Thomas Menino, mayor of Boston and Conference president. “To address hunger and home-lessness, we must all work together to confront our national affordable housing crisis and turn around our sluggish economy.”

“There is extreme concern,” that Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital is a symbol of the deterioration of housing services, D.C. Council member Jim Graham told The Final Call. “But we do this for the sake of the homeless themselves. We do this because we want to represent well all of the people in the District of Columbia, not just the people with comfortable houses and cars and jobs.”

Mr. Graham demonstrated his concern by sponsoring emergency legislation that was passed Dec. 17, demanding that D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams take steps to immediately address the issue, specifically by making good on the city’s promise to provide an additional 725 extra beds for single men and women.

But in most cities, according to the Conference report, as the need increased, the level of resources available to help meet that need at emergency food assistance facilities decreased in 52 percent of the cities surveyed, while it increased in 35 percent and remained the same in the remaining 13 percent.

More than half the cities in the survey said they are not able to provide an adequate quantity of food to those in need. In addition, nearly two-thirds of the cities reported that they had to decrease the quantity of food provided and/or the number of times people can come to get food assistance. The survey estimates that an average of 16 percent of the demand for emergency food assistance went unmet.

“The real terrorism in this country is people (who) daily have to wonder whether or not they’re going to have food on their table, or whether or not they’re going to freeze to death in the winter time,” Cheri Honkala, of New York’s Kensington Welfare Rights Union said in a broadcast interview the day after she was arrested protesting outside the United Nations after a 25-city bus tour to personally observe homeless conditions. “We are spending billions of dollars on a war, as opposed to spending that money on domestic issues, like housing families, like providing them with jobs.”

The Conference of Mayors survey found that 48 percent of those who request emergency food assistance are members of families with children, and that 38 percent of the adults who request food assistance are, in fact, employed.

“These are not simply statistics,” said Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, who chairs the Conference Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness. “These are real people who are hungry and homeless in our cities.”

According to the report, people remained homeless for an average of six months in the cities surveyed. That time increased from one year ago in all but four cities. Single men make up 39 percent of the homeless population, families with children make up another 39 percent, single women amount to 12 percent and unaccompanied youth 2 percent.

Their problems are compounded with the arrival of winter because of the El Ni—o weather-pattern effect. That weather pattern is caused once every several years when unusual amounts of warm air from the Gulf of Mexico meet frigid Arctic air from Canada over the continental U.S.

“All over the country, we’ve heard story after story of a person knowing of another human being, somebody’s father, somebody’s son, somebody who froze to death this winter so far, on the streets of our country,” said Ms. Honkala.

“We’ve got to begin to take those billions of dollars and invest in human beings in our country, before we can decide to go someplace else in the world and kill somebody else’s children and somebody else’s family. We’ve got to begin to use that money on providing health care and living wage jobs.”

The mayors announced a “call to action,” urging the Bush administration, and Congress, as well as state and local governments, the private and non-profit sectors to do more for the homeless. They urged Congress to add to President Bush’s request for homeless aid; to enact a homeless agenda; and to streamline federal anti-hunger programs.

The Kensington Welfare Rights Union promised to continue to take their concerns before the international community, just as they did with their protest outside the UN.

“We will continue to give these stories to the Organization of American States and hold our country accountable for committing human rights violations in our very rich country,” Ms. Honkala said.