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Cuts to Emergency Funds Literally Push New Yorkers Out the Door

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Recently I had the opportunity to talk with representatives from eight food pantries serving diverse communities in all five boroughs of New York City. I wanted to hear from them, firsthand, about the challenges they face in responding to the growing numbers of New Yorkers who are turning to them for help in putting food on the table. What they told me was harrowing. Their pantries have seen a huge uptick in senior citizens and young families who simply cannot make ends meet and must therefore rely on emergency food assistance.

With 13.7 million unemployed Americans as of April 2011, we are witnessing a perfect storm of record increases in the number of new clients in homeless shelters and food pantries and a simultaneous devastating decrease in charitable donations and federal funding. The amount of pressure on these organizations right now has never been higher. Most struggle week to week to keep food on their shelves. Many, for the first time, are having to turn away new clients.

It's time we remind our members of Congress what many in the nation's urban centers face these days and how perilous the situation has become. For 29 years the federal Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP) has remained one of New York City's most valuable resources for those who require immediate attention, yet it is now experiencing record budget cuts. Nationally, the EFSP aids the neediest people in 2,500 counties through a network of more than 12,000 nonprofit and public organizations. It is a crucial resource for those seeking their next meal or temporary relief from making rent on an inadequate salary. Its reach and effectiveness is founded on quick response, public-private sector cooperation, local decision making and allocating funds to the neediest areas.

Hunger goes hand in hand with homelessness, and can, more often than not, become a serious health problem for people old and very young. There are currently 1.4 million hungry individuals in New York City, and the South Bronx alone is the poorest and hungriest congressional district in the nation. Overburdened food pantries, kitchens, eviction prevention advocates and homeless shelters in our city report an astounding 26% increase in requests for help. In March, when Goya Foods partnered with United Way to distribute 75,000 pounds of Goya products to New York City area food pantries, Little Sisters of Assumption, which operates a food pantry in East Harlem, told me that, were it not for the donation, their shelves would be bare.

The budget recently passed by Congress slashed 40% off the EFSP's current allocation (FY 2011) and is proposing retaining the cut in the 2012 fiscal year. This reduction will grossly restrict the breadth, scope and effectiveness of the program, and has very direct and real consequences for some of the neediest people in the country, especially in New York City. It will lead to an estimated combined loss of approximately 22.6 million meals, 1.5 million nights of provided shelter, 38 thousand housing bills, and 82 thousand utility payments. The affected children, families and individuals who may not have another meal or a safe place to sleep are located throughout the five boroughs.

In 2010, as the local administrator of this vital program, United Way of New York City used $5 million in federal EFSP funding to support 234 soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters, who collectively served one million meals and distributed 1.5 million bags of food to families and individuals who suffered from hunger or food insecurity. In addition, EFSP funding provided 901 nights of shelter, and distributed $1.3 million in one month's rent, mortgage and utility assistance to households facing extreme financial hardship. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a resident of New York City must earn at least $19.58 an hour to afford adequate housing, something nearly unattainable for low-income working families or individuals. Those who can't make rent have no safety net and end up as one of the record 39,000 homeless people who currently sleep each night in New York City shelters.

The most vulnerable group living in New York City's shelters are the 16,000 children. Their lives are often violently and irrevocably plunged into the repercussions of poverty, which include domestic abuse, obesity, mental health problems and difficulties in school. Because these issues start at ages as young as five, they often follow children into their adult years. These children are twice as likely to experience hunger, and four times as likely to have delayed development.

Cutting funding to the ESFP and other safety net initiatives that may be the difference between life and death closes the door on those who suffer from the plagues of unemployment, homelessness and hunger, and guarantees that they have no place to go for their basic needs. At a time when the neediest of our city's residents have not recovered from the economic recession, we must play a larger role than usual in aiding our fellow New Yorkers and call on Congress to restore funding to the most desperate among us.