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Requests soaring from families in need

Agencies call demand unparalleled

Sylvia Colon, mother of Nevaeh, 4, and 9-month-old Raul, said she knows “the lights will go out sooner or later.” Sylvia Colon, mother of Nevaeh, 4, and 9-month-old Raul, said she knows “the lights will go out sooner or later.” (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / November 17, 2010

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From suburban church pantries to inner-city shelters, charities across the state are fielding a record number of appeals from struggling families for food, winter clothes, heating assistance, and other basic needs.

Charities and nonprofit groups that tend to the poor are experiencing unprecedented demand as the holiday season approaches and the nation’s severe economic troubles stretch into a third year.

A Catholic Charities food pantry in Dorchester says it now hands out 12,000 pounds of goods each week, four times as much as it used to distribute in a month. The number of Massachusetts residents who are hungry or at risk of going hungry has jumped to 660,000, a 20 percent increase in a single year, according to Project Bread, an antihunger group.

Statewide calls to a United Way help line, which steers people to assistance, have climbed by almost 50 percent. Calls doubled in hard-hit cities like Lowell, Lawrence, New Bedford, and Fall River.

With the weather turning cold, the number of people seeking help with their heating bills has risen by 20 percent over last fall. At the Boston offices of Action for Boston Community Development, an antipoverty group that provides heating assistance, people are lining up around the corner each morning to apply.

“The need is overwhelming, as it was last year, and the year before that,’’ said the group’s president, John Drew. “You take any basic need, and we have people looking for help.’’

Today, as the Salvation Army kicks off its annual drive to raise money for Christmas gifts and meals for the needy, organizers say the years of lost homes, lost jobs, and falling wages have pushed many low-income families to despair.

“They are no longer in a position where they can pay all their bills,’’ said Deborah Rambo, president of Catholic Charities of Boston, which has seen a 30 percent increase in requests at its area food pantries. “They’ve been out of work. They’ve gone through their savings. They can’t just make it anymore.’’

Catholic Charities has kept some pantries open in the evening so people can pick up groceries after work.

Ellen Parker, who directs Project Bread, said the economy has thrown thousands of secure families into poverty. She pointed out that the percentage of Massachusetts children living in poverty has climbed from 10 percent in 2007 to 13 percent last year.

In certain pockets of the state, poverty has deepened severely, she said, and a growing number of families are skipping or shrinking meals to save money.

“This really represents extraordinary pain in low-income communities,’’ Parker said, citing child poverty rates as high as 44 percent in Springfield. “I think it’s a public health crisis.’’

In Framingham, the Salvation Army has been serving meals to more families with young children and to teenagers who have left home and are on their own.

“We’ve been seeing more and more kids, all the time,’’ said Envoy Ruth Blais.

In response to the growing need, United Way has expanded its Thanksgiving drive in Greater Boston to supply nearly 5,000 meals, nearly twice as many as last year. The agency has received thousands of calls for help with utility bills and rent from families that, until the recession, had been self-sufficient.

“People are walking through the door who never have before,’’ said Jeff Hayward of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, which supports a range of service agencies in the region. “A lot of times they don’t know what services there are or where to get them.’’

Julie LaFontaine — who directs The Open Door, a food pantry in Gloucester — said requests for meals rose 22 percent between 2008 and 2009 and have not fallen back. It’s hard for many people to visit the pantry, especially those who had never expected to find themselves in such circumstances.

“You can see people struggle with that, walking through the door the first time,’’ she said. But once that passes, she said, “you can also see the relief.’’

The Home for Little Wanderers, a child and family service agency, has received a rush of requests for holiday gifts, often in the form of moving appeals from children for basic items like socks, bed linens, and gift cards for food.

Sylvia Colon, a 27-year-old single mother of three, has been out of work and trying to make ends meet on a $600 monthly welfare check, half of which goes to rent. She has received food assistance from ABCD, but worries her current situation is too fragile.

“It’s hard, you know?’’ she said. “I can’t afford the heat, the electricity, the phone, my son’s medication and put food on the table. I know the lights will go out sooner or later.’’

Yvette Cotto, 44, a stay-at-home mother from Dorchester who takes in foster children, goes to a food pantry at Bethel Church twice a month.

“You have to pinch every penny,’’ she said. Cotto is hoping to go back to school to become an advocate for foster parents.

But with persistently high unemployment, those who work with the poor wonder when things will get better.

“The question is,’’ Drew said, “how, as a country, are we going to help these people get on their feet and, in the meantime, help them survive?’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.

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