LOS ANGELES — In an alleyway just off San Pedro Street, a man in a pickup truck distributes sandwiches to homeless people in doorways and beneath stairways. It is dark and cold by 5 p.m., and men, women, and children warm their hands on the front hood while others serve themselves hot chocolate from a tailgate dispenser.
The scene is not untypical for the holidays, when community outreach generally accelerates in the spirit of the season. This year, after a 10-year trend of steady growth in the number of homeless in the United States, the need for local, nongovernmental largess appears greater than ever.
No definitive numbers exist on nationwide homelessness (the most comprehensive survey, a 1985-1990 Columbia University study, shows 7 million homeless at some point in that period); but a study of 29 cities released Dec. 19 by the US Conference of Mayors describes annual increases since 1985 in the need for food and shelter. This year, requests for shelter were up 11 percent; for food, 9 percent; and for housing, 73 percent.
As studies show continued growth in people out on the streets, Washington budgetcutting is undermining the ability of states, counties, and cities to cope with the problem. Cuts already implemented or under agreement, according to Mary Ann Gleason, director of the National Homeless Coalition in Washington, include: all education funds for homeless adults; a 20 percent decrease in funding for homeless-children programs; a 27 percent decrease in housing services; and elimination of a key program for psychiatric care for the mentally ill, which experts say comprise about 25 percent of the homeless.
Ms. Gleason and others point to a just-released study by the Gallup Organization and the Los Angeles Mission that they say shows Congress may not be following the public will regarding the homeless. According to the survey, 86 percent of Americans feel sympathy for the homeless, and 1 in 3 report they feel more sympathy today than five years ago. Those reporting such increases say their attitude has changed with the recognition that they themselves could become homeless.
"We feel this finding is a huge departure from the past," says the Rev. Mike Edwards, director of the Los Angeles Mission, a privately funded Christian relief agency. "Either because of rough economic times or because more people have become exposed to the problem, people are identifying more strongly with the plight of those who have lost their homes."
Opponents of public aid to the homeless point to findings, including the Gallup poll, showing that a majority of respondents feel private aid is more appropriate and efficient.
While the rate of increase has slowed in a few cities, many worry recent gains will be undermined by the cumulative impact of expected cuts in welfare, Medicaid, housing assistance, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. "If no compromises can be reached in Washington, there will be a heavy blow to the homeless," says Rene Heybach, of the Chicago Legal Assistance Foundation.