Lisa and Robert Palmer are nine months behind on their mortgage. Laid off, he recently got a temporary job as a tow truck driver. She is vying with more than 300 applicants for one of 53 bell-ringing jobs with the Salvation Army.
Shirley Murray, 53, is raising two grandchildren. Disabled and in remission from cancer, she says she's depending on area charities to provide gifts for her granddaughters this holiday season.
"I didn't have the money to buy them anything for Christmas, and I want them to be like the other children, to wake up on Christmas morning with something,'' she said.
But with dire economic conditions generating increased demand, local charities are straining to meet unprecedented needs.
"The food isn't coming in to keep up with today's hunger, let alone a celebration a couple of weeks away,'' said Jane Trocheck Walker, executive director of Daystar Life Center in St. Petersburg, where early morning lines spill onto the sidewalk.
At the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, food contributions have been "steady and reliable,'' said executive director Jane Egbert, but "we are seeing more people coming to ask for food on a daily basis and using our supply of food, so we have not had enough food to set aside for the actual holidays.''
At St. Vincent de Paul, which served 18,183 meals — breakfast, lunch and dinner — to the poor in October, the pantry is almost bare. Executive director Patricia Waltrich is worried but hopeful about the holidays.
"We're expecting at least 500 people on Thanksgiving Day. The requests for food baskets are really increasing significantly. Whereas a year ago, we would get about three to four requests a day, now it's 12 to 15. The lines at the food center are getting longer every day,'' she said.
"The practical side of me says we're going to need a lot of food, but the faith side of me says St. Vincent de Paul will always be there to help us and inspire people,'' she said, referring to the organization's patron saint.
For many agencies, the needs of the poor and newly poor go beyond food. Many arrive with requests for help with medication, rent, water and electric bills.
At the Salvation Army Social Services office in St. Petersburg, Luis Rosa said that more senior citizens are asking for help and that requests for Christmas assistance are up from a year ago.
"What we're seeing is an increase of people who have been laid off. We are seeing an increase in intact families,'' he said.
"They are coming from all over. We've had people from Seminole, from Largo, from Pinellas Park.''
Penny Simone, president of the St. Vincent de Paul conference at St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, said calls are coming from people who have never asked for help before.
"We're going into some neighborhoods in our parish boundaries that we've not had to go to before,'' she said.
By last Wednesday, the Salvation Army had approved 937 families — a total of 1,373 adults and 2,290 children — for help this Christmas.
Maj. George Patterson, the area commander, said this year's number is expected to be more than 40 percent higher than a year ago.
The holiday requests are funded in part by the Salvation Army's annual red kettle appeal, which began Friday. Bell ringers are made up of volunteers and employees, Patterson said. This year, more than 300 people showed up for 53 spots that pay $7 an hour, he said.
Lisa Palmer, who was laid off from McDonald's in March, was among the hopeful applicants.
"The only thing I want for Christmas is all my bills caught up and my mortgage paid,'' said the mother of Kyle, 12, Sabrina, 10, and Dale, 7.
Besides being on the verge of losing the two-bedroom home in Lealman that she and her husband bought from his parents, the family is also behind on payments for the single vehicle they own.
"Trying to dig yourself out of it is hard,'' Robert Palmer said Thursday as he contemplated the family's predicament.
"I don't want to lose the house my parents owned.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.