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Hunger and Homelessness: The Real Homeland Security Issues

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By Marian Wright Edelman

The U.S. Conference of Mayors released its 18th annual “Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America’s Cities.” The mayors’ report was an urgent reminder of how many families are struggling mightily to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.

It found that hunger and homelessness rose sharply over the last year in the twenty-five cities surveyed while resources to meet these needs declined.

In every city, the mayors expect requests for both emergency food assistance and shelter to increase during 2003. Freezing temperatures and budget cuts have created a significant rise in homelessness and hunger.

I believe if you want to work, you ought to be able to find a job. And if you are working, you ought not to live in poverty. Yet nearly forty percent of the adults surveyed who requested food assistance and more than one in five homeless adults were employed but still just couldn’t make ends meet.

Our stereotypical image of a homeless person or someone in a soup kitchen line is not usually a child. But children often constitute a large part of the face of hunger and homelessness in our country.

Forty percent of the homeless population in survey cities were families with children, and half of those requesting emergency food assistance were families with children. Many had to be turned down because cities did not have enough resources to go around.

Imagine being the parent in one of those families. How would it feel returning from a food pantry to face your hungry children empty-handed? And how must it feel when a family has no place to sleep or has to be split up in order to receive shelter? Nearly forty percent of families’ requests for emergency shelter simply went unmet.

Why is there no room for our children in our 21st century inn in the wealthiest nation on earth? Why are our political leaders cutting the heating and shelter and child care and child health assistance children desperately need while squandering hundreds of billions of dollars on tax cuts for millionaires?

City officials believe there are a number of reasons hunger and homelessness are rising across the country. They cite high housing costs as the leading cause of hunger, followed by unemployment, low wages, and the economic downturn.

They believe lack of affordable housing is also the leading cause of homelessness, followed by low-paying jobs, substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, and unemployment. Yet the United States Senate voted in January to cut programs to reduce substance abuse and help the mentally ill, and the Bush administration dragged its feet in extending unemployment compensation benefits until after Christmas.

We forgot that there are real human beings behind every statistic—people like Mrs. Arlene Cruz, a 55-year old grandmother struggling to care for the four grandchildren she rescued from foster care and whose plight was chronicled by the New York Times.

Mrs. Cruz tried valiantly to deliver the children to their Manhattan public schools starting from a different homeless shelter each day. She worked at a low-wage supermarket job but was unable to get a voucher for child care because she was not on welfare. She tried to make ends meet by adding a shift as a hospital aide.

When her health failed, the family fell deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit without a home. Should Mrs. Cruz and the more than two million grandparents like her struggling to keep families together lack the support they need—especially when foster care and homeless shelters cost taxpayers so much more than decent child care and housing assistance?

Are the hurdles Mrs. Cruz was forced to overcome in order to survive and keep her grandchildren together the best this nation can do? I don’t think so. It’s time to stand up to leaders who say we cannot afford to feed and house our children but can afford to fund a war against Iraq and to spend billions to prepare for a Star Wars missile defense system when children face the daily terrors on Earth of abuse, neglect, violence, poverty, and preventable sickness.

For the first time, the mayors’ report calls on the federal government to take specific actions, including “building upon President Bush’s request for aid to the homeless, as part of a comprehensive effort to end homelessness within ten years,” “enact[ing] a national housing agenda…which would put thousands of Americans to work,” and “streamlin[ing] anti-hunger programs.”

We can and must make ending disgraceful hunger, homelessness, and child poverty a national priority. The grandparents and parents struggling to hold their families together would agree that food and shelter and a job are the most urgent homeland security issues they face.

Marian Wright Edelman is President and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund whose mission is to Leave No Child Behind® and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.

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