Westchester sees alarming rise in hunger, homelessness

Caterer Jewel Phillip of Peekskill talks with attendees Caterer Jewel Phillip of Peekskill talks with attendees to the Share the Joy and Annual Christmas Party for the Homeless event at the Kiley Center in Peekskill. (Dec. 22, 2012) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

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Westchester is seeing an alarming rise in the number of homeless and hungry who are trying to survive in Hudson Valley's most affluent county.

Last year, the homeless population jumped by 24 percent to more than 1,500 individuals, according to data released Tuesday by the Westchester Coalition for the Hungry and Homeless. Those numbers include an explosion in homeless children, whose numbers increased by 63 percent to 700 kids. More middle-class families also are turning to food pantries and applications for food stamps are also on the rise, with 80,935 recipients last year, said Jeanne Blum, executive director for the White Plains-based group.

Many of the new cases involve single moms, she said.

"Imagine how difficult it is for a 28-year-old waitress with three kids making $25,000 a year," Blum said. "The odds are very stacked against her when she needs to put food on the table, buy medicine for the kids and pay her rent."

The numbers don't even begin to include couch surfers who have moved in with friends and family members, Blum added.

"Susan," a young, single mother who did not want her real name used, said she is doing all she can to avoid imposing on her sister, who lives nearby. At the moment, she is still in her own apartment with her three children, ages 9, 8 and 5.

"My whole issue is a job. I'm used to working, and I'm looking and looking," the former customer service rep told Newsday. She said she is in a job training program and goes to her local food pantry during the last week of every month because by then, her food stamps have run out. The struggle to get through the day "is overwhelming," she said.

Although new faces from Westchester County's wealthiest middle-class communities also are showing up at food pantries, they are usually avoiding programs sponsored in their own neighborhoods because they are too embarrassed, Blum said.

The issues are a "new trickle-up situation to the middle class," Blum said. "The food pantries are reporting that they're regularly seeing families from Bedford, Yorktown, Scarsdale and Chappaqua. These families are struggling, living in homes that they can't sell because the market is flat, so they are struggling to pay their mortgages."

The use of Medicaid for free medical care also rise by 9 percent last year compared with 2011 among the county's senior citizens, she said.

Until 2010, homelessness had been declining in Westchester, and county officials continue to do "a good job," Blum said. But between reduced federal and state funding for local eviction-prevention programs, the pressure on families in need took its toll.

On the county level, local organizations were hit hard last year by County Executive Rob Astorino's budget cuts. But $72,000 was reinstated last year for the coalition's pantry program. An additional $200,000 was restored to help various Westchester County groups with eviction prevention programs, including $50,000 that was provided for the coalition's work.

A call to Astorino's office for comment on the coalition's data was not immediately returned.

Homeless shelters in Westchester are run by both the county and some private groups. They are in Peekskill, Yonkers, White Plains, Mount Vernon and New Rochelle.

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