Man holding bowl of soup
Molly Kaybill

In American suburbs, poverty is growing. Between 2000 and 2011 the number of poor people living in suburban areas rose by 67 percent—twice the growth rate of cities. At this point, more poor people now live in the suburbs than in the nation’s big cities, a new study by the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings found. Meeting the needs of rapidly growing numbers of poor individuals and families has stretched the resources of suburban jurisdictions. And the suburban poor face hurdles in finding transportation and social services since safety net programs are typically more concentrated in urban areas.

“There is no good place to be poor but being poor in the suburbs means facing a unique set of challenges,” notes the Brookings report “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.”

The challenge of finding something as basic as food is increasingly common. Nearly 80 percent of suburban nonprofits surveyed by Brookings reported increased requests for food from families. In suburban Silver Spring, Md, the nonprofit, Shepherd’s Table knows that need well. The organization has been running since 1986, and has not missed a dinner yet. Every day, seven days a week, it opens its doors for free meals to people who need them the most. And according to the Brookings report, Montgomery County is in high need, despite being considered one of the wealthiest counties in the country. John Eckenrode, Director of Social Services at Shepherd’s Table has been with the organization since 1990. He has observed the nonprofit’s development, as well as a steadily increasing demand for services in the area. “Since the mid 80’s, I’ve seen an upsurge in the number of homeless people,” says Eckenrode.

Development pressures have led to displacement. And the lingering effect of the recession have added to the difficulties some families and individuals have faced.

In Montgomery County, where Silver Spring is located, homelessness crept up 2.5 percent over the past year, according to the region’s annual homeless count, produced by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The annual survey, conducted on January 30, found 1007 homeless men, women and children living in the county, up from 982 in 2012. In their report on the homeless count, county officials attributed the rise to “continued challenges with the economy and employment and bad credit including landlord debt.” They also noted that the high cost of housing in the county continues to complicate efforts to prevent and end homelessness.

A household would need to earn more than $56,000 annually to be able to afford a modest two bedroom apartment in the county. Still, the county continues to press forward with efforts to house the chronical l y homeless. A total of 1,695 formerly homeless county residents are now living in permanent supportive housing, according to the report. But there is always more work to do, Eckenrode acknowledged. “Wherever you are, there are never enough services,” he noted. Still, Shepherd’s Table goes on offering necessities, serving breakfast and dinner, providing used clothing and supplies, and offering free vision tests and eyeglasses through its clinic. As poverty continues to challenge this suburb, the motto of Shepherd’s Table speaks for itself: “Basic needs never take aholiday. Neither do we.”