The U.S. Conference of Mayors has released its 2008 Hunger and Homelessness Survey, an analysis of the scale of hunger and homelessness problems in a number of American cities and their efforts to address these problems.

Santa Monica was one of the 25 cities on the U.S. Conference’s Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness that responded to the survey — among others including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Phoenix and Dallas — and is one of 19 that reported an increase in the prevalence of homelessness in their city.

The city has participated in the survey, which asks about 40 questions, for more than a decade.

“At this time of significant economic downturn, the issues of hunger and homelessness in America are more prevalent than ever,” said Miami mayor and conference president Manny Diaz. “Cities are the front lines where these effects are first felt, which is why mayors have been proactive and have implemented local initiatives to combat hunger and homelessness in their communities to take care of our most vulnerable residents.”

Santa Monica, like most other cities surveyed, also reported that the demand for emergency food assistance during the past year has outpaced an increase in supply, said Stacy Rowe, the city’s human services administrator.

In the last year, Santa Monica distributed 1.9 million pounds of food through the Westside Food Bank.

But that is only a three percent increase in food distributed, despite a 21 percent increase in requests for emergency food assistance in the city during the last year.

And nearly half of those requests came from people who are employed, Rowe said. Sixty-six percent came from families.

Additionally, the city has seen a higher proportion of people using a food pantry for the first time.

Poverty, unemployment and the lack of affordable housing were listed as the top three causes of hunger in the 25 surveyed cities, according to Elana Temple, a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Santa Monica does, however, participate in the Farm to Family program, a distribution program that links California produce growers with the state’s established network of food banks. The program is managed by the California Association of Food Banks and has brought an extra 250,000 pounds of produce for Santa Monica residents this year.

Still, there will probably continue to be a national increase in the demand for emergency food assistance next year, including for Santa Monica.

On the homeless front, Santa Monica has seen a 15 percent increase in the number of homeless people who have requested city-funded services and housing over the last year, Rowe said.

She pointed out that that “doesn’t necessarily mean there was an increase in our street population.”

“Whether or not there’s been a change or not in the number of people sleeping on our streets will be determined when we do the homelessness count in the last week of January,” Rowe noted.

The need for homeless services may continue to rise, especially with the economy in a recession and unemployment on the rise.

“We don’t know yet what the impacts are going to be and we’re cautious,” Rowe says. “We can’t predict. No matter what happens, it will probably be complicated.”

Santa Monica vows that it will continue to employ “innovative aggressive and compassionate strategies to reduce street homelessness and prevent homelessness among the city’s priority populations,” according to Rowe.

On January 27th, the city is partnering with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) for a biennial census of homeless people in Santa Monica.

But for the first time, “We are going to attempt to enumerate the entire city instead of just a portion of the city,” said Rowe.

In previous years, after surveying just a portion of the city, LAHSA would use projections to calculate the other portion of Santa Monica’s homeless population. This year, the city’s entire homeless population will be counted.

The city is in need of volunteers to help with the homeless count.

Information, www.homeless nessaction.smgov.net/.

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