Philadelphia pantries struggle to meet increased emergency food needs

    Requests for emergency food assistance increased 7 percent in Philadelphia this past year. That’s according to a new report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

     The group looked at hunger and homelessness in 22 cities between August 2014 and September  2015. Emergency food assistance went up an average of 2.8 percent, with half of surveyed cities reporting increased requests. But in Philadelphia, demand was higher.

    55 percent of the requests for help came from people who were employed. The report cited low wages as a factor.

    On the ground, it has meant that agencies like Bebashi – Transition To Hope on Spring Garden St. haven’t been able to keep up.

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    “It’s devastating because folks line up. We say, ‘Be here at 1:30 so we can start serving at 2,'” said deputy director Linda Martin. “The line starts forming, and there are days where we have to tell someone who’s at the end of the line, we can’t help you.”

    People are walking away with less food, and the pantry has cut back hours, Martin said. It’s closed until next week.

    “That’s really a shame,” said Linda Wall, director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. “If there are some pantries who are running out of food at Christmas time, I can’t imagine what’s going to happen in February.”

    Wall said the holidays tend to be a robust time for donations, but that generosity drops in January, February and March, which can be the most difficult months for families.

    “People generally think about giving to food pantries around this time of year, but come the winter they don’t, and that makes it harder,” she said.

    The new survey found that about 27 million pounds of food was distributed in Philadelphia, but that about 10 percent of food requests went unmet.

    Wall wasn’t familiar with the specifics of the survey, but said it generally echoes the calls fielded through their busy hotline, and the experiences of the 100-plus pantries her group works with. Her group’s own surveys have found that nearly all of them have run out of food at some point in the last few years.

    Hunger support agencies are also feeling the pinch right now from the state’s budget stalemate.

    Homelessness up

    Homelessness also went up, according to the report.

    A fall “point-in-time” count found that 670 adults were on the street in Philadelphia, up from 371 people the previous year. Marie Nahikian, deputy director of Philadelphia’s Supportive Housing office, stressed some caveats: it was a “very, very warm night,” and it covered a wider area.

    Even so, Nahikian acknowledged that chronic homelessness went up 29 percent compared with last year.

    While the city has increased the number of available emergency beds, “there is a lack of affordable housing and a lack of space in specialized housing,” she said, referring to places that will accommodate those with an active addiction or untreated mental illness.

    The report found that about a third of homeless adults in Philadelphia had a severe mental illness.

    “The way to solve this is to have enough housing that has very low barriers for accessibility,” said Nahikian.

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