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Economy takes harsh toll on relief agencies

The same sagging economy that is throwing thousands of Americans into poverty and homelessness is making it harder to help the needy as donations to charities and food banks dry up.

This time last year, Braxter Cundiff had a job and an apartment in Albany, N.Y. Now he relies on the Capital City Rescue Mission for his meals and shelter.

“I thought I could stay in place and hold my own, and it got kind of hard,” he said. “The money I was making, living on my own, to buy food and pay rent — it was kind of real hard.”

Cundiff isn’t alone. In Albany, as in communities across the country, everyday Americans are seeking help with food and shelter in record numbers.

“It started increasing, and it just became overwhelming,” said Maxwell Amsong, a professionally trained chef who oversees food services at the nonprofit Christian mission, which served about 16,000 clients last month, a 23 percent rise over March 2007.

The story is retold over and over: 40 percent more clients for the Salvation Army in Panama City, Fla.; 20 percent more for Urban Ministries of Raleigh, N.C.; almost 200 percent more for the Community Ministries Food Pantry in Boise, Idaho.

It’s a double whammy. At the same time that the sagging economy is producing more mouths for relief agencies to feed, it is also drying up donations to help feed them.

In Raleigh, demand is so high that the Salvation Army’s soup kitchen is in danger of running out of enough food for the day’s meals.

“We were feeding 30 to 40 people a day. Now we’re up to 170 to 180 a day,” said Helen Randolph, who has run the soup kitchen for nearly 20 years. “I used to be able to make a monthly menu, but I can’t do that anymore. I have to make a day-to-day menu.”

Government programs fall short
Food prices have been rising steadily, by 4.4 percent over the past 12 months, according to economic data released last week. Gasoline is 53 cents a gallon steeper than it was a year ago. More Americans are losing their jobs, and those who do have work have seen their average weekly earnings fall for six straight months.

Everyday staples are the biggest culprit in rising food prices — the cost of bread rose by 14.7 percent in the past year, while milk was up by 13.3 percent — but the average food stamp benefit grew by only 4.8 percent, said the Agriculture Department, which administers the program. The average benefit is only $99 a month.

“We find that food stamps don’t stretch your dollar as far as they used to,” said Chris Long, a supervisor with the Department of Social Services in Washington County, Md.

And with summer coming up — when schoolchildren who get free or reduced-price lunches at school won’t get those guaranteed meals — relief agencies say they’re in a critical situation.

“People are going to continue to come in daily asking for food assistance, and the worst thing we want to do is say, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have any of that,’” said Scott Hoover, volunteer coordinator for the Salvation Army in Panama City, Fla.

But with charitable contributions slowing to a trickle, the resources aren’t coming in.

“2007 seemed to be a typical year for fundraising until the environment changed dramatically at the end of the year with the mortgage crisis,” said Paulette V. Maehara, president of the 28,000-member Association of Fundraising Professionals, which advocates for philanthropy and ethical fundraising.

Participants in the association’s annual survey overwhelmingly chose the economy as the biggest challenge they faced in 2007. No other issue came close.

And “it looks like 2008 could be one of the most challenging years charities have seen in some time,” said Timothy R. Burcham, chairman of the association.

Donations fall off the table
The struggling economy is hammering America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s largest hunger-relief agency, representing more than 200 food banks and food-rescue missions.

Individual contributions fell by 38 percent, from $28.4 million to $17.5 million, from fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2007, according to the nonprofit agency’s financial reports. Grants from foundations fell even more sharply, by 72 percent.

In 2006, America’s Second Harvest ended the year with a $13 million surplus. It ended 2007 with a $20 million deficit. And the figures for fiscal 2008, which ends June 30, are likely to be even worse.

Poor Americans “are in desperate circumstances, struggling to keep a roof over their heads and to keep their children fed,” said Vicki Escarra, president and chief executive of America’s Second Harvest. “The recent spike in food and gasoline prices has only made a terrible situation worse.”

‘We do turn away some people’
Money is tight.

“It’s a difficult economic time right now, and individuals are holding on to a little more of their disposable income,” said Ashley Delamar, operations director for the Salvation Army of Wake County, N.C., who said the shelves were empty at the Raleigh food bank.

In Holyoke, Mass., the Salvation Army’s Christmas kettle drive fell $30,000 short of its goal of raising $150,000 this winter. The agency is planning an all-out “Christmas in July” kettle drive this summer, hoping for enough donations to keep going.

“We do turn away some people because we don’t have the funds to help,” said Capt. Persida Sanclemente of the Holyoke Salvation Army. “Everyone is struggling and everyone is feeling the pinch, so the need becomes greater.”

The Rev. Scott George, founder of the Greater Orlando (Fla.) Food Bank, said he was struck by how many people were showing up who had never used such services before.

“It seems like every day, more people are coming, and the stories are getting more and more desperate,” George said. “You can see it in their eyes.”

For Linda Lera-Randle El, executive director of Straight from the Streets, a homeless outreach group in Las Vegas, there is little to be optimistic about. She said that even as the line of hungry men and women grew longer every day outside her door, fewer dollars were coming in to help feed them.

“Once the economy goes down, the least among us are going to suffer even worse,” Lera-Randle El said. “Not only are we worried about the back door of the people who are already here, but we’re afraid the front doors are going to come off the hinges, as well.”

NBC affiliates KTVB of Boise, Idaho; KVBC of Las Vegas; WESH of Orlando, Fla.; WHAG of Hagerstown, Md.; WJHG of Panama City, Fla.; WNCN of Raleigh, N.C.; WNYT of Albany, N.Y.; WSMV of Nashville, Tenn.; and WWLP of Springfield, Mass., contributed to this report.