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By Hans Nichols and Anthony Terrell

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Hundreds of furloughed federal workers and contractors gathered at church here on Thursday, looking for help on how to survive the partial government shutdown.

"I know these times have been challenging for you and your families," said Jody Singer, the director of the Marshall NASA Space Flight Center. "We want to make sure we lessen the burden on you."

But she couldn't provide what many of the furloughed federal workers and contractors most wanted to hear: a timeline for the partial shutdown to end and a green light to head back to work.

"I don't know how long the furlough will continue," Singer said. "I can't wait — I don't know about you — to get back to business."

Huntsville, home to the Redstone Arsenal and more than 40,000 federal workers and contractors, has been hit hard by the shutdown. Close to 6,000 NASA employees and contractors have been sent home without pay.

Areas businesses are suffering, with some restaurants reporting a one-third drop in business. And the uncertainty of how long the shutdown will last is leading many to trim their spending habits.

But the local community is pitching in. At Thursday's gathering, the First Baptist Church of Huntsville handed out $16,500 worth of grocery store gift cards, up to a $100 for families, to help put food on the table.

The church was "helping a lot of people out by giving gift cards to the grocery store, which is going to go a long way," said Dan Mailman, a NASA contractor who has already missed one pay period.

"Its a little stressful reaching into week four," he added of the shutdown. "You know, it's not a position I want to be in."

More than a dozen local organizations — from the United Way and a local food bank — set up tables to help inform furloughed workers what assistance might be available to them.

Local credit unions were offering short-term loans. The Food Bank of North Alabama was ready to help first time customers figure out how to get help.

For many, it was a learning experience.

"Typically, a government employee can't get assistance, so we're kind of just seeing what's out there," said Derrick Stokes, a NASA employee and a father of four young children.

He said he could last "maybe a couple of more weeks," before considering a bridge loan or applying for unemployment benefits.

Others were at the end of their savings.

"I can no longer last, I am at the end," said Andrea Tobias, another NASA contractor. "They are keeping my pay check hostage."

She had a simple message for political leaders back in Washington: "Let us go back to work."