HUNGER AND HOMELESSNESS IN AMERICA
Several newsletters ago, I wrote about 'Holding the World', something that we all need to learn to do better as part of the human family. 'Holding the World' involves remaining conscious of those who are with us in this life that we share. It also involves granting to those who are suffering, a reality that cannot be swept away by rosy economic forecasts, by political rhetoric, or even by the promise of legislation heralded to address critical social issues. Unless we read the fine print of such legislation, it is often the case that what appears on the surface to be addressing a problem is only addressing it in part, or only to a very limited degree.
The tsunami crisis in Asia has, indeed, catalyzed a world-wide response from individuals, nations, and aid organizations to those in need. Yet, at the same time, it points out to us, by contrast, those persons and groups whom we pay much less attention to, who are in a state of equally compelling need. I wrote about this in The Economics of Giving.
In this country, pressing social issues of hunger and homelessness are with us today to an increasing degree. They are with us because we, as a nation and as a government, have not yet given them sufficient priority in our hearts and within our national budget, to reduce their impact or to make them disappear entirely. This does not mean that each of us, individually, does not care about such isses. We may care deeply. It means that in the distribution of money and resources to address national issues of utmost concern, these issues are not at the top of the list.
What should be abundantly clear to us as we strive to learn how to be "our brothers' keeper" - in the biblical sense, in the Buddhist sense, in the Christian sense, and in the sense of moral conscience - is that something has to become emminently real to us in both heart and mind before it can be addressed on a practical level. The motivation for 'holding the world' must be there before the actions that emanate from it can take place.
With this goal in mind - of holding the suffering of others in our awareness - it is possible to look at the picture that emerges of hunger and homelessness in America - a picture that would not be as startling if it did not take place in the wealthiest nation in the world. If we were talking about an African nation or an Asian nation, we would not be surprised to find extensive hunger and homelessness. Or, if we were talking about the victims of the recent tsunami crisis, we would know from watching the news that problems of homelessness and hunger are being addressed in a massive way by governments and world aid organizations. That is why it is all the more startling when these issues appear in this most prosperous country, even after years of social welfare programs aimed at addressing them. Despite these programs, they come up again, and again and again, because much more needs to be done about them.
Today, we must face the fact that 36 million people in this country - a population the size of New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts together - are not able to provide enough food for themselves or their families to sustain themselves, and that between six hundred and seven hundred and sixty thousand people, according to different estimates, on any given night may not have a place to sleep. (See Expanded Section on "Homelessness and Poverty: Myths and Facts About Homelessness").
As we become more spiritually aware, we cannot afford to not know about these things, as our hearts grow and expand and our desire to help the planet expands as well. Sometimes in the past, our caring has been put aside because it seemed that there was nothing of a practical nature we could do with it. The sense of helplessness has caused many of us to turn ourselves 'off' and to go on with our lives, as if those who are suffering were not with us. The thinking has been that if we don't see them, we don't have to feel helpless or discouraged.
Yet, we are in a different time now. We are in a time when the advent of greater light has the possibility for changing the consciousness of people in a way that was not possible before, and therefore of leading to life-altering action that will be of benefit to many. We can participate with this change in any outer way that we choose, for what is essential is the inner way that manifests the outer. This is the essence of a spiritual life. Such a life involves the commitment to allowing our hearts to expand so that all action may come from greater love. This doesn't mean that we have to be depressed each day about those who are hungry, cold, or who have no place to sleep. It means that we have to be mindful of the suffering and the need of others, and to hold this need in our hearts with God.
What 'holding with God' means is very different from holding something by ourselves. For one thing, it involves the awareness that God's heart also holds the suffering of all, and strives continually to bring all of life into a state of greater abundance, hope, and love. For another, even if we do little to affect change in a practical way, our inner focus affects change silently and surely. We can be in a continual state of awareness of the earth and the beings upon it who are in need. Similarly, we can be in a continual state of wordless prayer for the blessing of all.
Regarding social action, too often in the past it has been infused with motivations of anger, fear, resentment, and judgment. Now, we must redefine what it means to act out of conscience. The word 'conscience', etymologically, means, 'to know with'. In order to 'know with God' what is right to do, the source of our action must come from a deep inner calling that tells us when to act in a certain direction. This calling is the voice of God speaking within our hearts, creating a sense of rightness. If the source of motivation toward action is anger or judgment, then the result cannot be 'with God'. To 'know with God' is to allow the consciousness of love to precede whatever action is taken, so that that the greatest possible expression of love can emerge. No matter what the degree or shape of our outer activity, the caring for others and the wish for their wellbeing is the central core of change. This will inevitably grow as the heart expands, as the soul infuses the personal self, and as the way of holding suffering 'with God' becomes more possible.
As these changes occur, becoming an 'emissary of light' is a natural outcome. Being an 'emissary of light' does not necessarily involve organized social action to address critical issues, though it may. There are beings at all levels of spiritual life and light who assist in transforming the consciousness of the earth without being in bodies and without engaging in physical action. For those within the human experience, more than anything else, such transformation involves standing in the light with awareness and great love, so that our alignment with light can affect those around us and spread to the planet as a whole.
It is with this invitation to share in the fate of mankind from the place of feeling at one with God's love, that I offer the following resources to you on 'Hunger and Homelessness in America', in order that there may be no one, anywhere, that we feel separate from.
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Here are some basic statistics concerning hunger in the United States, accumulated from a variety of sources:
"Today (2004) our world houses 6.39 billion people.
- 852 million people across the world are hungry, up from 842 million a year ago.
- In essence, hunger is the most extreme form of poverty, where individuals or families cannot afford to meet their most basic need for food.
- 36.3 million people (within the United States) —including 13 million children—live in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger. This represents more than one in ten households in the United States (11.2 percent). This is an increase of 1.4 million, from 34.9 million in 2002.
- Thirty-six million is equal to the entire population of New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts taken together - JR). (U.S. Census, July, 2003 )
- 3.5 percent of U.S. households experience hunger. Some people in these households frequently skip meals or eat too little, sometimes going without food for a whole day. 9.6 million people, including 3 million children, live in these homes.
- 7.7 percent of U.S. households are at risk of hunger. Members of these households have lower quality diets or must resort to seeking emergency food because they cannot always afford the food they need. 26.6 million people, including 10.3 million children, live in these homes.
- The USDA chart outlining "Who was food insecure", is available by clicking here."
From: Bread for the World Institute World Hunger and Poverty: How They Fit Together and Domestic Hunger and Poverty Facts, (2004).
From another source, Anuradha Mittal, Director of the Oakland Institute, writes in "Hunger in America" about the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" which "established universal standards and aspirations for human dignity." This is a document well worth looking at to see an expression of the highest ideals of mankind. She says:
"December 10, 2004 marks the 56th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)... Inspired by the belief that human dignity requires freedom of expression and freedom from poverty and hunger, the UDHR proclaimed the interdependence and indivisibility of civil-political and economic-social human rights. Regrettably, 56 years later, the original commitment to human rights interdependence remains in rhetoric only. The U.S. is no different.
A look at the United States reveals a wide gap between the goal of universal access to adequate nutrition, and the reality of hunger that plagues millions in this country alone. The number of hungry people in the United States is greater now than it was when international leaders set hunger-cutting goals at the 1996 World Food Summit. The pledges by United States government leaders to cut the number of Americans living in hunger- from 30.4 million to 15.2 million by 2010- are lagging behind. An estimated 35 million Americans are 'food insecure' with food insecurity and the necessity of food stamps being experienced by at least 4 in 10 Americans between the ages of 20 and 65. That's (almost) 50% of Americans!"
America's Second Harvest
America's Second Harvest is, according to their organization's statistics, "the nation's largest organization of emergency food providers," serving 23.3 million people annually. A2H conducted a study in 2001 with more than 32,000 clients. Here are some results of that study:
Of the population served by A2H:
- 71% are 'food insecure', (a term established by the U.S. Government's Food Security Scale to designate degrees of inability to access sufficient food).
- of this 71%, the study showed 33.9% to be 'food insecure' without hunger, and 36.7% to be 'food insecure' with hunger.
The Northern Illinois Food Bank, as an example, reports:
- 50.9% of clients report having to choose between paying for food and paying for utilities or heating fuel
- 40.4% had to choose between paying for food and paying their rent or mortgage bill
- 36.8% had to choose between paying for food and paying for medicine or medical care
U.S. Conference of Mayors: Hunger and Homelessness (2003)
The findings of the 2003 Report of the U.S. Conference of Mayors convey a more intimate picture of the way relief agencies operate in this country, and the limitations on such operation due to lack of funding:
The report was based on a survey of 25 U.S. cities:
- During the past year requests for emergency food assistance increased by an average of 17 percent, with 88 percent of the cities registering an increase. Requests for food assistance by families with children increased by an average of 18 percent. Requests for emergency food assistance by elderly persons increased by an average 13 percent during the last year, with 73 percent of the cities reporting an increase.
- On average, 14 percent of the requests for emergency food assistance are estimated to have gone unmet during the last year. For families alone, 15 percent of the requests for assistance are estimated to have gone unmet. In 56 percent of the cities, emergency food assistance facilities may have to turn away people in need due to lack of resources.
- 59 percent of the people requesting emergency food assistance were members of families - children and their parents.
- 39 percent of the adults requesting food assistance were employed.
Agencies involved with food distribution have been concerned in recent years about the increase in families in need. This fact has to do with a complex interrelationship of factors that have to do with family spending - unavailability of affordable housing, lack of medical insurance, limited employment skills which guarantee only a minimum wage or just above - all of which affect the security of a family's ability to provide food for itself.
According to figures provided by the US Department of Health and Human Services, up to 600,000 men, women, and children are homeless each night in the US. (Other estimates put the figure as high as 760,000). Also, recent evidence confirms that homelessness among families is increasing.
Here, once again, are the findings on homelessness of the 2003 Report of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, based on a survey of 25 cities. When you look at these, picture individuals and families literally knocking on the door of an emergency shelter, especially during the winter months. (See: My Story: Anitra L. Freeman).
- During the past year requests for emergency shelter increased in the survey cities by an average of 13 percent, with 80 percent of the cities registering an increase. Requests for shelter by homeless families alone increased by 15 percent, with 88 percent of the cities reporting an increase.
- An average of 30 percent of the requests for emergency shelter by homeless people overall and 33 percent of the requests by homeless families alone are estimated to have gone unmet during the last year. In 84 percent of the cities, emergency shelters may have to turn away homeless families due to lack of resources; in 72 percent they may also have to turn away other homeless people. (See: Funding is tight as need increases (Louisville, KY, Dec. 25, 2004).
- People remain homeless an average of 5 months in the survey cities. Sixty percent of the cities said that the length of time people are homeless increased during the last year.
- Lack of affordable housing leads the list of causes of homelessness identified by the city officials. Other causes cited, in order of frequency, include mental illness and the lack of needed services, low-paying jobs, substance abuse and the lack of needed services, unemployment, domestic violence, poverty and prison release. (See: Homelessness and Poverty: Frequently Asked Questions. Also: Economic hardship causing drastic increase in US homelessness. (Sept., 2004).
Officials estimate that, on average:
- single men comprise 41 percent of the homeless population
- families with children 40 percent
- single women 14 percent, and
- unaccompanied youth five percent. (See Expanded Section on "Common Myths About Youth Homelessness").
The homeless population is estimated to be:
- 49 percent African-American
- 35 percent white
- 13 percent Hispanic
- 2 percent Native American, and
- 1 percent Asian.
An average of:
- 23 percent of homeless people in the cities are considered mentally ill
- 30 percent are substance abusers
- 17 percent are employed, and
- 10 percent are veterans.
Officials in 87 percent of the responding cities expect requests for emergency food assistance to increase during 2004. Eighty percent expect that requests by homeless families will (also) increase.
Even with an improving economy, city officials believe that economic conditions will continue to have a negative impact on the problem of hunger and homelessness. (See: Recommendations to the Bush Administration for Ending and Preventing Homelessness. (March, 2001)
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WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
What is important about all of these facts is to understand the choices being made on a daily and yearly basis by those in positions of power to enact or prevent enaction of policies that would create affordable housing for the homeless, more shelters, an expanded food distribution program, etc. This is especially needed in relation to families with children where, despite the need, cutbacks in recent years have caused great hardship for many.
The state of priorities within a society, based on its values, is what determines the policies whose implementation affects the very fundamental aspects of food and shelter for those in need. It is a paradox of huge proportions that within a society that has so much, we must still turn away families with children from a food-distribution center or from an overnight shelter because there are not enough beds or enough funding to take care of them.
Though anger, despair, disillusionment, or judgment are possible responses to this situation of need and limitation, they are not useful responses. Now, it is time for each of us to take the step of becoming more responsible for affecting the consciousness of mankind which determines the values and priorities that govern society. We do this by changing our own consciousnesss so that it affects the network of life and light of which we are each a part. It is time, now, to commit ourselves to the purposes of light and God so that we, in this country, can move into a new era of hope - one in which the great gulf betwen the 'haves' and 'have nots' shall disappear from the land.