11.21.13

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), On National Homelessness and Hunger Awareness Week

Next week, Americans across the country will gather with family and friends to celebrate a national tradition, Thanksgiving. Some will give thanks for their good fortune or health over the past year, while others will simply be thankful to see their loved ones together in one place. What most of us will take for granted, however, is that we will have a meal to eat and have a home in which to gather. Far too many Americans will not have that luxury. During this time of reflection, and in honor of National Homelessness and Hunger Awareness week, I would like to take a moment to speak about those who are all too often overlooked, the homeless and the hungry.

Each and every day, millions of Americans face the uncertainty of when their next meal will be or when they will be able to feed their family. On any given night, a disgraceful number of Americans face the uncertainty of not knowing where they will sleep. Sadly, many have nowhere to turn. These Americans live in both large states and small, in urban centers, and small, rural towns across the country. These are men, women, and children who live, work, and attend schools in our communities without the basic needs of food security and a place to call home. 

There are nearly 3000 Vermonters who do not have a roof over their head each night. And while organizations like the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS), Spectrum Youth and Family Services, and the Vermont Coalition for Runaway and Homeless Youth do their best to provide emergency shelter, services, and housing for people who are homeless or marginally housed, the need far outweighs their capacity. 

Nationally, we have made some progress to address this issue and have seen the number of individuals experiencing chronic homelessness and homeless veterans significantly decrease. Unfortunately, the face of homelessness is changing, and the number of families facing homelessness has dramatically increased. Shelters are seeing an unprecedented number of families.  Many of these families have at least one adult who is working full time, but who does not earn enough to afford a place to live. Of the 4244 people who used emergency shelters in Vermont last year, 952 of them were children. We know that children who experience homelessness suffer from high rates of anxiety, depression, behavioral problems, and below-average school performance. Regrettably, shelter workers are beginning to see the first signs of generational homelessness.  This is unacceptable, and we owe it to those children and families to do more.

Across the country nearly one in six people faces hunger on a daily basis. One in five children are living in a household with food insecurity.  In a nation where $165 billion worth of food goes to waste each year, it is clear that there is enough food to feed everyone in America.  We need to do a better job of getting that food to those who need it most. For the more than 84,000 Vermonters facing food insecurity, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known as 3Squares in Vermont, is a lifeline helping to feed their families. SNAP is our single most important anti-hunger program providing assistance to nearly 49 million Americans in need of help to afford food. With so many Americans still struggling to put food on the table, it is deplorable that some in Congress continue to call for reductions to food assistance as a way to solve our nation's deficit problems.

No one can deny the effects of hunger on Americans, especially children. Children who live in food insecure homes are at a greater risk of developmental delays, poor academic performance, nutrient deficiencies, obesity and depression. Yet participation in food assistance programs turns these statistics on their head. Federal nutrition programs have been shown to decrease the risk a child will develop health problems and is associated with decreases in the incidence of child abuse. Children from families who receive food stamps have a higher achievement in math and reading and have improved behavior, social interactions and diet quality than children who go without.

 

Two-thirds of SNAP beneficiaries are children, the disabled, or the elderly who cannot be expected to work. The remaining participants in the program are subject to rigorous work requirements in order to receive continuing benefits.  While SNAP offers crucial support to a family's grocery expenses, the benefits far from cover a family's food expenses. With a benefit average of about $1.25 per person, per meal, it is understandable that families typically fall short on benefits by the middle of the month.

Across the nation, wages have remained flat as prices for every day essentials like food, heat and especially housing continue to rise.  At the same time, as more families find themselves in need of some help, the programs that provide that safety net have been devastated by cuts over the past several years and continue to be targeted for even further reductions in the name of protecting tax loopholes for corporate jets and oil companies.

The budget decisions made in Congress have real impacts for real people.  Reductions to funding for the organizations providing emergency shelter, or programs that build much needed affordable housing, means more Americans face housing insecurity.  Cuts to the SNAP program means benefits will run out earlier in the month and even though donations to food banks and soup kitchens are down, they will see a record number of families looking for a little help to just make it to the next month.

As the budget conferees discuss a path forward, it is essential that they find a common sense compromise to replace sequestration and put an end to the deficit reduction on the backs of those most in need. There are just too many people that are one unforeseen expense away from a desperate financial situation that could result in them losing the roof over their head, and the means to feed their family.  We can all agree that there is something fundamentally wrong with the reality that children living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world do not know when they will get their next meal and do not have a safe place to sleep at night.

Every child in America deserves a fair shot. This is why I have championed the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act.  Programs authorized by the RHYA have successfully helped countless runaway and homeless youth and their families in Vermont and across the nation over the last 30 years, but we can and must do more. We must recognize the importance of investing in our nation’s youth, and direct resources where they are needed most.  Programs authorized by the RHYA expired at the end of September.   I hope that we can work to reauthorize and improve RHYA by addressing the needs of children in the most vulnerable communities, and provide services that meet the needs of youth who identify as LGBT and the young victims of trafficking or exploitation. We need more training and resources to help our grantees meet the needs of young victims, and that’s what the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act provides.

There are families that are having difficulty making ends meet. We must pass a Farm Bill that does not include the extreme House cuts to SNAP benefits at levels ten times as high as the bipartisan Senate bill and nearly twice as high as the House’s original bill. Those cuts would mean that each year, an average of three million people will be kicked off food assistance, and hundreds of thousands of children will lose access to school means. I hope that the bipartisan efforts of the Senate to pass a responsible Farm Bill will help produce a good farm bill out of conference that does not contain these deep and damaging cuts to food assistance.

We owe it to the American people to put politics aside and especially during this time of year, to give a voice to those who are most in need, to those often overlooked and marginalized and to start making meaningful progress to eliminating homelessness and hunger in this country.

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