By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A survey of 29 cities shows hunger has risen in most of them in the last year and is largely expected to increase in 2012 as the United States faces a sluggish economy, the U.S. Conference of Mayors said on Thursday.
Homelessness also rose an average of 6 percent for the surveyed cities, with the increase in homeless families far outpacing the number for individuals.
Mayors said the figures showed the depth of problems facing poor and low-income families as the United States slowly recovers from a deep economic downturn and joblessness that was at 8.6 percent last month.
They urged that food and housing programs be defended as the government moved closer to $1.2 trillion in mandatory cuts aimed at reducing a ballooning federal deficit.
The survey "should be a wakeup call for cities involved and the country," Kansas City Mayor Sly James said in a conference call with reporters.
"Here in the richest country of the world we have people who cannot find a place to live and we are failing to address it such that the numbers are increasing, not decreasing."
Eighty-six percent of the cities reported requests for emergency food aid had increased in the last year, the survey by the mayors' group said.
Kansas City showed the sharpest increase, at 40 percent. It was followed by Boston and Salt Lake City, both at 35 percent.
Unemployment led the list of causes of hunger, followed by poverty, low wages and high housing costs.
No survey city expected requests for emergency food aid to drop over the next year, and 93 percent expected a rise.
Forty-two percent of the survey cities reported an increase in homelessness and 19 percent said the number stayed the same.
The number of homeless families was up an average of 16 percent, but the number of unaccompanied homeless people was up less than 1 percent.
Charleston, South Carolina, had by far the biggest increase in homelessness, at 150 percent. Los Angeles was second at 39 percent.
Officials in 64 percent of the cities expected the number of homeless families to increase, and 55 percent of them expected the number of homeless individuals to rise.
The report of rising numbers of hungry and homeless American came after the Census Bureau reported last month that about 48 percent of Americans, or 146 million, were living in poverty or considered low income.
Based on a new supplemental measure designed to provide a fuller portrait of poverty, the Census Bureau said about 97.3 million Americans fell into the low-income category. Another 49.1 million are considered poor.
In another indicator of hunger, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported this month that 15 percent of the U.S. population, or almost 43.6 million people, took part in its main food program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, in September.
The figure is up almost 8 percent from the year before, and up 77 percent in five years.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors groups mayors from 1,139 cities with populations of 30,000 or more.
(Reporting By Ian Simpson; Editing by Jerry Norton)