Raleigh soup kitchens see record numbers, white-collar workers

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Social-service organizations and soup kitchens in Raleigh are reporting longer lines and increased demand in recent months as the effects of the economic slump continues to unfold locally.

The Salvation Army of Wake County in particular reports a 30 percent increase in demand for its services.

“People would be surprised of the demographic of people coming in now, “ said Paige Bagwell with the Salvation Army of Wake County. “We are seeing more people that we have ever seen before, that might not have ever had to ask us for help.“

Bagwell is referring to white-collar workers; some who may have had their hours cut at work and can’t make their mortgage payments. She said that many have full-time jobs, homes and bills to pay.

“They are just not seeing the income they are used to and have to make ends meet,” Bagwell explained.

Through its crisis assistance program, the Salvation Army provides financial help for people with past due utility bills and rent. It also operates a soup kitchen Monday through Friday and stocks a food pantry available Tuesday and Thursday to a limited number of individuals and families in need. Bagwell said she has seen a higher demand for these services in particular.

The Shepherd’s Table Soup Kitchen has experienced a similar spike in attendance. In late February, the group held the largest lunch service in its 29-year history – a record of 393 meals.

Tamara Gregory, executive director of the nonprofit organization located on the corner of Morgan and McDowell streets in downtown Raleigh shared her concern. “A lot of our folks never thought they would be here,” she remarked.

Like Bagwell, Gregory has also noticed a changing pattern in demographics during the organization’s daily lunch service, reporting a 12 percent increase in white-collar attendance.

The nonprofit organization serves a hot mid-day meal Monday through Friday to anyone who walks through its doors. The lunch line, which traditionally begins to form on Morgan Street by 9:30 a.m., is forming an hour earlier than usual, Gregory said.

“We don’t let anyone go without a meal. We don’t turn anyone away,” Gregory said.

A daily staff of 26 volunteers typically serves 1800 pounds of food a week, but is currently dolling out 2300 pounds to curb the hunger of a growing lunch line.

“We try to let them feel like they are guests in our kitchen,” she said.

“The demand for our services is growing,” said Bruce Storer, director of development for the Raleigh Rescue Mission. “There are a whole lot more people out there that are becoming homeless because their financial road is collapsing on them.”

Located on East Hargett Street, the Raleigh Rescue Mission offers a long-term recovery program and emergency shelter for poor and homeless men, women and children.

Storer describes a common financial scenario for many who can’t support themselves or their families during tough economic times. “There are a lot of people living so close to the edge [financially.] It doesn’t take long for the domino effect,” he said.

He notes that many individuals who are “doubled-up” by staying with a friend or relative, can also be affected. “When the economy really hurts, people can’t afford to have them stay,” Storer added.

Doing more with less

Despite serving lunches to record numbers, The Shepherd’s Table is experiencing a downturn in donations.

“Most people are saying they just can’t give what they gave last year. Many companies are having to make tough decisions between their employees and philanthropy,” said Gregory.

“It is a kind of perverse situation; our economy is really suffering, and so are local businesses. In that climate, demand for their services falls- and this is not so for us,” Storer said.

Among its forecasts for philanthropic giving in 2009, the LBG Research Institute projects a modest increase in corporate giving to organizations that provide basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter.

“We are just asking people to support us as they can,” Storer added. “It is difficult to ask people in this climate to give more.”

According to Storer, in-kind donations are particularly vital and the rescue mission is managing expenses aggressively to compensate for any dropping income.

On the flip side, an encouraging report reveals The Salvation Army of Wake County received a nine percent increase in donations during the 2008 Christmas season.

“We just pray we can offer a little bit of hope and comfort for whatever people are going through,” Bagwell mentioned.

Despite the downturn in donations to her organization, Gregory remains optimistic. “We are pretty fortunate, we haven’t seen our pantry get empty yet,” she said.

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