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Shelters see spike in needy

Sour economy has many more seeking out food banks, homeless shelters.

CHICAGO — The line for a Thanksgiving meal was long when the Chicago Christian Industrial League shelter opened Thursday morning, and volunteers served more than 200 people in the first 40 minutes — record demand for the shelter.

Among the hungry were familiar faces, people who had eaten their last Thanksgiving meal at the shelter and others who had helped provide those meals, said executive director Mary Shaver.

“These are the people who are always giving money — and now they’re asking for help,” Shaver said. “These were the people donating money to us.”

As millions of American families gathered to give thanks for what they have, food banks and shelters across the country struggled to cope with a spike in demand for their services.

With more people feeling the weight of the economic downturn, those who oversee the charities say they are seeing many new faces on food lines.

“Food bank after food bank tells me it’s new faces, people they haven’t seen before,” said Ross Fraser, spokesman for Feed America, a Chicago-based charity that coordinates corporate donations to more than 200 U.S. food banks. “They will tell you it’s the worst it’s ever been.”

“Starting about a year ago, we’ve seen a very significant spike in the demand,” Fraser said. “It used to be the poorest of the poor who came to us for help.”

But higher food prices are affecting the working poor “and the needle is moving up in terms of the income we’re starting to serve,” he said.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository, the city’s food bank, has seen a 33 percent increase in food pantry demand from July to September of 2008, compared to the same period last year, said spokesman Bob Dolgan.

“Our network is strained right now,” Dolgan said. “Our most successful pantries ... are having to turn people away.”

Donations to the Salvation Army in the Washington, D.C., area have dropped 20 percent, while the agency grapples with a 30 percent increase in requests for assistance, said Maj. Steve Morris, the organization’s area commander.

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