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Nonprofit officials fear impact of spending cuts

Nonprofit organizations that help people find housing or provide food and fuel assistance are bracing for a tough winter, expecting more people to need help at a time when federal subsidies could be reduced.

The number of Massachusetts residents expected to fall off unemployment benefits, coupled with high fuel and food costs, will force residents to choose between eating or heating their homes, several officials of nonprofit organizations said during a conference call ­arranged by social service agencies.

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Federal emergency unemployment insurance benefits are scheduled to run out at the end of the year. The fiscal cliff that Congress is wrangling over — a series of scheduled tax hikes and spending cuts — could make the problem worse for many residents and the charities that help them survive, said Catherine D’Amato, executive director of the Greater Boston Food Bank.

Expected federal cuts to food programs, particularly commodities and USDA foods, will strain food banks. In addition, the possibility of fewer resources for federal entitlement programs will put more pressure on the emergency system, D’Amato said during the call.

“Hunger is increasingly becom­ing a middle-class problem across our Commonwealth,” D’Amato said. “The ­issue has changed over time, in particular since the recession.”

One in 11 Massachusetts residents, approximately 800,000 people, are “food insecure,” meaning that they visit a food pantry, soup kitchen, or shelter, D’Amato said. The Greater Boston Food Bank serves approximately 90,000 people a week.

The increased need for help has spurred a boost in the ­response from charitable ­donors this year.

In 2009, several organizations pulled together to create MassNeeds, a statewide coordinated effort to take a broad look at hunger, housing, heating, and health needs. The group raised a record amount this year, $8.4 million collected from 40 corporate, private, and public foundations. Last year, they collected $3 million from 20 donors.

“Unfortunately, as we all know, the economic recovery has been slow and a bit uneven,” said Blake Jordan, executive director of the Highland Street Foundation, one of the founding groups in MassNeeds. “Many residents are struggling to make ends meet.”

A lack of affordable housing compounds problems for many people struggling to pay rent or mortgages in a tough economy, said Joe Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.

“It is no secret that here in Massachusetts over the past ­decade or so we have had a serious issue around the supply of housing,” Finn said. “This is a problem that impacts all of our lives. If you are poorer, it becomes a far greater crisis, often developing into homelessness.”

On Monday night, about 16,000 men, women and children were homeless across the state, Finn said.

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