Larger number of needy Alaskans strains support system

Demand for warm meals in the city's largest soup kitchen and safe beds in local shelters have soared to all-time highs, with more Alaskans than ever before seeking assistance in hard times, social service officials say.

Meals served at the nonprofit Bean's Cafe, which feeds both the homeless and the working poor, jumped 25 percent this year – from 18,562 meals served in January 2008, to more than 23,000 meals in January 2009, Bean's executive director Jim Crockett said.

At times this winter volunteers there have ladled out more than 300 food trays per breakfast or lunch, far surpassing the Third Avenue soup kitchen's table capacity, which seats about 200 – or its building capacity, limited by fire code to 263 occupants, Crockett said.

"So we're almost having to go to a shift-type situation, where we have some people come in and then some go out, because we don't have the room for all of them."

Greater need tied to the economic downturn is also placing stress on the St. Francis food pantry maintained by Catholic Social Services in East Anchorage, officials there said.

"We're seeing a lot more working poor -- in fact we've opened up an evening hour that we didn't used to have for that increased need," said Catholic Social Services director Judy Bomalaski.

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