Big cities are losing the poverty battle. Homeless often find only lines, waiting lists, mayors report

This has been a good year for most American cities. Unemployment is down, the economy is up. But urban prosperity is bypassing a growing number of city residents. Compared with a year ago, more urban Americans today cannot afford to buy a Christmas turkey. And if they could, they would have no dining room in which to eat it: They have no home.

``It is my sad responsibility to report,'' says Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, ``... that in urban America hunger, homelessness, and poverty continue to grow,'' as they have for several years. Mr. Flynn is also chairman of the United States Conference of Mayors' Task Force on Hunger, Homeless, and Poverty.

In an annual report of conditions in 26 major cities, the Conference of Mayors finds that:

An average of 18 percent more people needed emergency food help this year than last.

Twenty percent more people sought emergency shelter. Nearly two-thirds of the cities had to turn away some people because their shelters were full.

In two-thirds of the cities, waiting lists for publicly assisted housing are so long that officials won't take any more applications. People already on the lists must wait an average of 22 months for housing.

Despite the volunteer and local efforts, Flynn says, the mayors' surveys find that in all these areas ``the problem ... is just getting a lot worse every year.''

Of all these problems, Flynn says, ``the critical issue ... is housing.'' He says the ``dramatic'' increase in housing costs in many cities has made many Americans homeless: The new survey finds that 1 of every 5 homeless people has a job, but apparently cannot afford private housing.

For many others, Flynn says, higher housing costs leave too little money for food: They must seek emergency aid at volunteer-run food kitchens and pantries.

Flynn says the thousands of volunteer efforts to aid the poor are ``heroic.'' Yet he says that the task overwhelms the current combined efforts of volunteers, cities, and states. The $355 million in emergency aid that Congress this year gave to the homeless also helps, but it is far from a full solution.

The biggest need, Flynn insists, is for the federal government to increase substantially the amount of money it makes available for housing subsidies. In 1981 Uncle Sam provided $35 billion to build or subsidize housing for the poor; this year it gave only $8 billion.

But it is at best questionable whether Congress and President Reagan will agree to increase the federal housing budget next year, when many other social programs are similarly seeking additional funds or protesting trims aimed at cutting the ballooning federal deficit.

The Reagan administration wants the poor to find their own housing and then provide them with federal subsidies to help pay the rent.

On the other hand, congressional Democrats, like the Conference of Mayors, want the federal government to build more low-cost housing. There simply are not enough places for the poor to live in, they say: More must be constructed.

This year the House approved a major housing bill, but the Senate did not. Flynn served notice that the mayors will seek congressional approval during the 1988 election year of a substantial housing-construction measure.

Flynn's challenge to federal officials: ``What good is the government if it can't provide for the most needy of its individuals?''

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