Numbers asking for Thanksgiving dinner just a sign of economy’s toll

Posted Nov. 24, 2011, at 8:12 p.m.

GLOUCESTER, Mass. — Julie LaFontaine, executive director of The Open Door, said Wednesday she and other organizers at the Emerson Avenue food pantry and service agency had projected in August they could expect an increase of between 15 percent and 20 percent in the number of meals they’d provide this Thanksgiving.

So the fact that they were dealing with a 22 percent jump that was still climbing as of Wednesday morning wasn’t entirely overwhelming.

“Yes, we’re seeing a little more than we expected,” said LaFontaine, whose agency had distributed 864 turkey dinn ers as of midday, and expected handling 20 more before Thanksgiving Eve was done. “It didn’t really catch us by surprise.”

The growing numbers of those in need around Gloucester and Cape Ann is no longer a surprise to virtually anyone who deals in social services these days.

LaFontaine said The Open Door has seen an overall jump of 28 percent in demands for its regular year-round services over the past two years. And that agency’s Thanksgiving distribution is hardly along.

While serving perhaps two dozen people at its hall on lower Washington Street, the Lester Wass American Legion Post 3 is also delivering 275 to 300 meals as well, said Sandy Kee, who’s helping coordinate the effort there.

The Action Inc. shelter on Main Street will be serving some 30 meals to clients who are homeless this Thanksgiving, and either stayed or are staying the night, said Executive Director Tim Riley.

While Gloucester’s unemployment rate remains down from this time in 2010, the city’s jobless rate jumped from 7.0 percent in August to 7.5 percent in September, according to the latest state figures. That means that 1,227 people listed as part of the city’s work force are out of jobs.

The toll of the continuing economic lag and its local human toll shows up beyond numbers, Riley and LaFontaine say.

At Action, Riley said the agency’s homeless shelter — which hosted perhaps 20 people during the summer, and up to 26, its limit, under city zoning statutes — is now regularly packed at 26 and has hosted up to 30 through a revised layout that fits within the city’s building code. The agency is looking to formally boost its capacity through revised zoning requirements, Riley said.

The status of Action’s other services is equally telling, Riley said.

In the past, a person facing eviction, needing food stamps assistance or other forms of aid could have simply walked in to meet with an Action counselor, or set up an appointment for the next day. Now, he says, there is about a two-week backlog for such appointments.

At The Open Door, LaFontaine said she sees trends that point to the growing depth of Gloucester’s and Cape Ann’s service needs. A number of people who were once donors to the Open Door, or served as volunteer, “are now showing up on the other side of the counter,” she says, needing help themselves.

To that end, LaFontaine said, The Open Door needs additional help itself, through donations or volunteers. Anyone who wants to help may learn how by visiting the agency’s website at foodpantry.org.

The food pantry will also look to replenish its supplies beginning Friday with an eye toward the December and year-end holidays, LaFontaine said. But she and others at The Open Door had a singular focus Wednesday and today.

“We just want as many people as possible to have a happy Thanksgiving,” she said.

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