Communities in Crisis: A New Student Study

When Jess Thomson thinks of America, she doesn't think of pervasive poverty. Or at least she didn't until she helped survey emergency shelters and food pantries last year. She was shocked to hear how many people need food assistance, even when they have homes or jobs, and how many go without a safe place to sleep. And even more surprising was just how many people get turned away from shelters or can't get food aid because the people who are supposed to provide those services don't have the resources.

Thomson, 23, started volunteering with the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, the non-profit group that conducted the survey, when she was a freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey five years ago. The Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness was founded in the 1980s by USA for Africa and the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). It still works closely with PIRG, and many of the students who conducted the survey became involved through their local PIRG chapters.

As part of the survey, Thomson and other student volunteers asked roughly 900 food and housing agencies in 32 states about trends in demand for services and funding. Results of the yearlong survey were released today in a report called “Communities in Crisis.” Thomson, who now works for MassPIRG as a campus organizer at Northern Essex Community College, says the findings show how priorities in government spending are leaving more and more people without places to turn to for help. According to the survey, roughly 39 percent of food providers and 43 percent of emergency shelters that had to turn people away for lack of resources also reported cuts in funding.

As Pamela Bachilla puts it, “It's going in the wrong direction in both ways." The 23-year-old student helped distribute the survey forms and collect results as a volunteer with CalPIRG at UC Berkeley. All of the agencies she spoke to said they had to turn people away. "I expected that to be a high number, but I was devastated to hear that all the agencies had had to turn people away," Bachilla says. She added that the experience has cemented her commitment to working on the policy side of poverty, a problem she feels the government is not addressing properly.

Although the survey shows state funding cuts were more severe than federal cuts, Kathleen Barr, the policy advocate for Student Campaign against Hunger and Homelessness, says that's a result of the way the programs are administered. For the most part, the federal government gives money to the states to fund the programs, and so cuts in federal spending appear to come from the state. Also, the federal government has shifted more of the responsibility of funding these programs onto the states, which often can’t afford to fund them at the same levels as the federal government.

Important Survey Findings

* 74 percent of agencies surveyed reported an increase in requests for food assistance over the past year; on average, surveyed agencies reported a 28 percent increase in requests.

* 65 percent of agencies surveyed reported an increase in requests for shelter over the past year; on average, surveyed agencies reported a 27 percent increase in requests.

• 24 percent of emergency food providers surveyed reported that they turned away requests for food this past year, primarily due to a lack of resources.
• 77 percent of emergency shelter providers surveyed reported that they turned away requests for shelter this past year, primarily due to a lack of resources.

• 33 percent of agencies reported reduced income over the past year; 43 percent of agencies saw funding cuts from the state government and 35 percent from the federal government.

Read more on the National Student Campaign Againsy Hunger and Homelessness site

Federal funding is not only going to remain low, but it will be cut even further, according to the Bush administration’s 2006 budget, announced Feb. 7. It includes cuts to the programs that either fund the agencies directly or supplement the services they provide. Decreasing the funding to food programs and housing assistance will likely increase the burden on community programs that are already helping as many people as their budgets will allow. Barr says the survey demonstrates that the president’s budget is “totally out of touch with [the] reality of increasing hunger and homelessness.”

The U.S. Census Bureau reported in August of last year that 35.9 million people were living in poverty in 2003, up 1.3 million from the year before. Although the statistics can be daunting, Barr says that the task of feeding and housing people is not impossible. She points out that between the 1940s and late 1970s, hunger and homelessness were rare in the U.S., and that they have become much bigger issues in recent years, as government funding of social services started to dwindle. Since then the need for homeless shelters and food agencies has been on the rise.

When students asked the agencies to rank the reasons behind the growing number of hungry and homeless people in their communities, the most common given were unemployment, low-paying jobs and the high costs of housing. Jocelyn Gibert, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Wisconsin, says it didn’t surprise her to hear that the need for social services is increasing, but talking with service providers challenged the way she thought about poverty. “It made me think that maybe I was overlooking some of the reasons why people fall into poverty and homelessness,” she says. “I used to think it was an individual problem, but it’s not. It’s institutional.”

Since working on the survey, Gibert has found that there are several misconceptions about poverty, including the idea that people choose to be homeless, or that they can get out of it by themselves. “People say, ‘Why don’t they just get a job? This is America, there are opportunities,’” she says. “But there are so many social forces working against them. They can’t do it on their own. They need contacts and a support structure.”

At other times, Gibert says she's talked to people who think that that the government is already spending too much on programs for the hungry or homeless. Bachilla, from UC Berkeley, sees these misconceptions as an extension of people’s fear and misunderstanding about poverty. “In a society that’s obsessed with material success, she says, "[homelessness] is seen as the ultimate failure.”

Educating people about the reality of poverty is key to changing their attitudes, says Gibert. She encourages those who are interested in solving these problems to talk to the people around them about the problem. She also urges students to get involved in activist organizations and keep themselves informed about policy changes. Most importantly, she says, is not to be afraid to push for change.

“Voice your opinion,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to march to the statehouse and say, ‘As my elected official, what are you going to do about this?’”

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