Despite the nation's continuing economic recovery, the problem of America's homeless and hungry persists. Some argue it is intensifying. Fresh reminders of the depth of the problem in this region surfaced this week at a special Senate hearing conducted in a West Side Baptist church by Sen. Alan Dixon (D) of Illinois.
``The problem is very, very severe -- and growing,'' insisted Luz Martinez of the Illinois Coalition for the Homeless, insisting that many in rural areas sleep in concrete blocks, outhouses, and barns and are not even counted among the homeless.
A recent report of the Physician Task Force on Hunger sponsored by Harvard University estimates 20 million Americans are hungry. The report concludes many gains that reduced hunger in the late 1970s have been eroded by cuts in federal food aid that have totaled nearly $12 billion since then.
The report notes that charitable food banks are distributing seven times as much food as in 1980 and that such cities as Boston and Chicago tripled their handouts just last year.
Sister Connie Driscoll, who opened a shelter on Chicago's South Side two years ago with 75 beds for women and children, says she has had to turn away more than 14,000 people.
Mayor Harold Washington testified that the city of Chicago's homeless is estimated at 25,000. He noted that his mayoral Task Force on Hunger last fall reported close to 900,000 Chicagoans (one in four persons) undergo frequent periods of inadequate food or are malnourished.
``We're not getting anywhere [in reducing] the size of this issue -- things have gotten worse not better in Chicago over the last three or four years,'' insisted Joel Carp, chairman of that mayoral task force.
Many agencies serving the hungry and homeless have received emergency help from Washington over the last few years through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). But all such funds have now been disbursed and by law must be spent by the end of July. Spokesmen for many recipient agencies say it will be difficult if not impossible to continue without such help.
``The FEMA money may sound like small potatoes, but for many of these agencies it's been the glue that has kept them from falling apart,'' comments Nancy Amidei, an adjunct professor of social work at the University of Michigan. ``Many of these decent, caring [social agency and church] people got into this field four years ago because they believed it was a temporary crisis. But the crisis goes on. And they're frantic. They can't continue to operate on a shoestring.
``I have a private guess -- which I hope doesn't come true -- that we may lose one-fourth to one-third of these emergency services. I know of churches organizing food drives who say they're not going to do it next year. And some food banks on the West Coast have already closed because they have no money to keep their doors open.''
Next week Senator Dixon plans to introduce a bill to establish a National Endowment for the Homeless as a private, nonprofit agency to disperse funds to states. It would also provide information much as the federally supported endowments for the arts and humanities does now. Dixon is asking $110 million in federal seed money as annual support and up to $50 million more a year in federal matching money for any private dollars given.
Part of the money problem, charities say, is that private donations -- though hitting an all-time high in 1984 -- are likely to drop as federal restrictions on them grow and as the economy improves and people assume the need is less.
``The greatest need which no one is talking about is affordable housing,'' says Nancy Amidei. Insisting that housing programs have taken a ``minus 500 percent'' cut over the last five years -- affecting not only present plans but future commitments -- she says rehabilitation of existing housing stock will not be enough to do the job.
By most estimates one-third to one-half of all homeless are among those discharged from the nation's shrinking roster of mental health institutions. The problem, says Gordon Paul, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Houston, was that the community support services expected to accompany the move never materialized. ``It became a dumping phenomenon.''
Though some who deal with the homeless have urged a special shelter system for the mentally ill (they are often evicted from regular shelters for disruptive behavior), Professor Paul argues that with the right treatment and supervision, many such individuals can learn to adjust to apartment or home living as other people do.
The long-term solution to the hunger problem? Many, including the Harvard Physician Task Force, say raising the level of assistance in the federal food-stamp program (by 25 percent) and lifting some of the red tape that bars many of the eligible from access to it, could make a significant difference.