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An escalating need

The downturn in the economy has forced many more families to seek help this holiday season.

By MELIA BOWIE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2001

The downturn in the economy has forced many more families to seek help this holiday season.

It was almost noon, and Sandra Alanis was going nowhere fast.

The line for free toys and food outside the Salvation Army on Ninth Avenue N in St. Petersburg had been curled around the side of the building for hours.

At times hundreds deep with mothers, fathers and fidgety children Wednesday, this was a Christmas experience Alanis could have done without -- if she'd had a choice.

But, she said, there is a recession on. Her hours at work dried up, and after Sept. 11 her two daughters desperately need to feel that all is right with the world at Christmas.

So it goes for thousands of families in the Tampa Bay area. Charities facing greater demands say the holidays have highlighted the fallout of a year punctuated by economic downturns and national tragedy.

"I usually do everything myself," said Alanis, a credit counselor in Largo whose work week shrank from 40 hours to 25 to nothing. "This year I'm struggling."

Organizers at the Salvation Army in St. Petersburg said 650 families pre-registered with them for food and gift assistance this season. Clients receive a bag of unwrapped gifts purchased specifically for their children by donors. An additional bag of food staples also is provided.

In Hernando County, Salvation Army Capt. Tim Williford said 400 families took advantage of the holiday help -- a number officials barely met now that "funds have been down and requests are up."

An assembly line of volunteers in St. Petersburg spent 10 days sorting toys and packing 2,250 grocery bags that once filled the farthest corners of a gym floor inside the army's community center. Only a few bags were expected to remain by Wednesday night, said volunteer director Marilyn Coles.

But by midafternoon in Tampa, workers with Metropolitan Ministries were already scrambling to come up with extra food and toys for crowds that exceeded even their post-Sept. 11 projections.

More than 1,200 families showed up early this week, said spokeswoman Maria Rutkin. In many cases they are the new working poor.

"We have 5,200 families registered for holiday assistance," Rutkin said, adding the number grows daily. Metropolitan Ministries had anticipated 7,800 total for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"It's about a 22 percent increase in need," she said. As of 3 p.m. Wednesday the agency had enough supplies to meet 70 percent of its food needs and just 40 percent of its toy demand.

Volunteers raced to the stores to stock up on gifts for thousands of bay area children: only 25 toys remained in their infant bin. The supply for teenage boys are long gone.

With a week until Christmas "now people are coming to us from other agencies," Rutkin said; including the Salvation Army, United Way and Toys for Tots.

Although a $10 donation is enough to buy a turkey or a toy for a family, ministry officials said donations have been flat, and they are working harder just to maintain past levels.

"This is the first year that we've had more people coming than we can meet the demand for," she said, explaining they now expect nearly 9,000 families at their N Florida Avenue tent.

In Pinellas County, Salvation Army workers said donations have been up and they are "meeting the need" -- at least in St. Petersburg.

Kettle donations in the city even increased a few thousand dollars over 2000, said Capt. Gary Elliott with the Ninth Avenue branch.

Officials there said a few factors worked in their favor this holiday, including a longstanding relationship with Pinellas County schools and with mobile home parks that traditionally hold drives for them. The army also refers needy families to other charities if it is tapped out after meeting the demands of preregistered clients.

However, it is the months before and after the holiday season that paint the best picture of Tampa Bay's need, Elliott said.

"There's real pressure on our resources. We're feeding 60 to 150 more meals a day since Sept. 11," Elliott said. "These people are a paycheck away from needing help."

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