US soup kitchens overwhelmed - number of needy increases

For 19 years, Alice Hodgkins has been working in the Centre of Hope of the Salvation Army in Ocala, Florida, dpa reported.

Every day, needy have come into the centre asking for food - and always, she was able to help them.

Up to now, that is.

"A couple of days ago, our shelves were empty," she said in a telephone interview. "We just didn't have any food to give to the people coming in. I felt so embarassed, because we couldn't do our job and help them."

The sad story Hodgkins tells is the same all over the United States. Connecticut, New Hampshire, Indiana - everywhere you ask, charities are overwhelmed by the increase of people seeking aid.

The daily calls at the hunger lifeline of the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington have almost tripled within the past year. And starting this fall, the visits of people picking up supplies each month at the food pantry Food for Others in Fairfax, Virginia has risen by 40 per cent from month to month.

But still, Fairfax and Washington are lucky. In these cities, a lot of wealthy people still earn enough money to donate - and private donations have risen as people hear about the difficult situations aid organisations encounter. With these donations of food, clothes and money, the organisations can handle the increased demand.

Judy Eagan would be glad if her charity received donations like these. She works for the Catholic Charities of Oswego in Fulton, New York, a town with an average income nearly half that in the Washington area.

"A lot of people who used to donate to us now have to come here and ask for help themselves," Eagan said in an interview.

So she has a hard time collecting enough food in order to be able to give everybody coming into the small food pantry some groceries. "There has only been one fundraiser this year," Eagan said. "Usually by this time of the year we've had a couple of them."

So the Catholic Charities try to collect more donations in other ways and send letters to area households, asking for more donations. But so far, there has not been much of a response. Not only has the number of people donating decreased, but the people who give donate smaller amounts.

"I'm sure the money we need is there," Eagan said. "But the people are so stressed about the economy that they keep their money together."

The economic downturn affects the number of homeless people in the US as well. Last year, there were 124,000 people living in shelters or on the street each night, and those who work with the homeless in some areas say that is increasing.

The people now coming into homeless shelters for the first time, are "not the people who are homeowners, but poor families in rented homes," said Philip Mangano, director of the United States Interagency on Homelessness.

He said some renters were hit when their landlords hadn't paid their mortgages. The families then received letters from the bank, saying they would have to move because the house would be foreclosed within 30 days. In that short period of time, some of the families could not find a new place they could afford, Mangano said.

"A lot of them had families or friends they could stay with. But some fell all the way to the homeless shelters or even on the streets," he said. In New York City alone, the number of families coming into homeless shelters has increased by 30 per cent within the past year.

"It is a trauma for these families, that even though they've been paying their rent, they still lost their homes," Mangano said.

A lot of people asking for help at the organisations now had never been in such a situation before. "Many people coming in for the first time are ashamed. I believe that some are too embarassed to come in at all," said Hodgkins, the director of the Florida aid group.

But there is hope: After media reports showing the difficult situations of food banks, soup kitchens and homeless shelters, private donations increased, Charlene Sarmiento of Goodwill Industries said. Because of that, nationwide Goodwill now has even more money than last year.

The private donations at the Capital Area Food Bank have increased, too. Still, it doesn't have more money overall because 85 per cent of its donations come from corporate companies - and since many of them have economic problems or have gone out of business, these donations dropped by 20 per cent. So far, the increased private donations can not make up for this loss.

The federal government will soon fork out more money to help homeless people, Mangano said. An additional 4 billion dollars will be provided to cities and counties. This money is to be used for "neighbour stabilization."

The community officials are supposed to buy multifamily homes so that families can move into them. But the money won't be provided before next year. For many families that means Christmas spent in homeless shelters or out on the streets.

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