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Holiday of plenty puts spotlight on the needs of many

Shui Tuen Chim (left), received food from volunteer Delia Alvarez at the Franciscan Food Center at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston. Agencies that help those in need report much higher demand this year.
Shui Tuen Chim (left), received food from volunteer Delia Alvarez at the Franciscan Food Center at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston. Agencies that help those in need report much higher demand this year.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

For seven years, Michelle Lopez worked in Downtown Crossing, she said, doing data entry at a state agency.

The 36-year-old mother from Chelsea was back in Downtown Crossing Thursday, but this time to get groceries from the Franciscan Food Center at St. Anthony Shrine. Lopez was laid off some months back, she said, and has not been able to find full-time work since.

“I’ve been trying to come in here for a long time, but they always had a waiting list,” said Lopez as she waited her turn to pick up provisions.

Lopez is among as many as 500 individuals and families who depend on the food pantry every week to get groceries that would otherwise be unaffordable, said Mary Ann Ponti, the center’s director.

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She said the pantry expects to see about 700 men, women, and children on Monday when volunteers and staff distribute turkey, zucchini bread, blueberry pie, and other fixings for Thanksgiving.

“The need has grown,” Ponti said.

As the holiday season begins, that is being repeated again and again by people who provide services to the poorest residents of Greater Boston.

“We’re overwhelmed,” said John J. Drew, the president and chief executive of Action for Boston Community Development, an antipoverty agency. “People’s incomes have not gone up . . . and yet prices are going up. The economy is growing, but obviously it’s growing for those who can afford more.”

For many poor families, Drew said, it’s a struggle to pay for basic needs, such as housing and electricity.

One-bedroom apartments in Boston are commanding rents of about $1,500 a month, and utility companies said recently that electricity bills will spike this winter, he said. Drew’s agency helps people pay their heating bills and has taken 14,000 applications for aid since Nov. 1, he said.

Many who have the most trouble paying higher prices are those who are working low-paying jobs with limited hours, Drew said. And their chances of finding higher-paying work are slim unless they have a high school or college degree, which is nearly unattainable for many of the poor, he said.

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“The need is great and we need more help,” Drew said.

Brenda Mendes received food from volunteer Margaret Bulens at the Franciscan Food Center at St. Anthony Shrine on Thursday.
Brenda Mendes received food from volunteer Margaret Bulens at the Franciscan Food Center at St. Anthony Shrine on Thursday.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

A comprehensive survey on hunger in Eastern Massachusetts conducted by the Greater Boston Food Bank and released in August found one in 12 people living in Eastern Massachusetts receive food from its network of more than 550 member agencies. Nearly 64 percent of those agencies reported an increase in the number of clients they served from 2013, the report said.

Researchers surveyed people receiving food between April and August 2013, the report said.

Even some residents who receive food stamps say the assistance does not cover all the grocery bills.

“That’s not enough,” said Lopez, who has been getting them as she tries to get by.

The plight of hundreds of Boston’s homeless people has been exacerbated since engineers condemned the bridge to their shelter on Long Island in October and makes this holiday particularly difficult for them.

The city is moving its traditional Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless to the Woods-Mullen Shelter, where staff expects to serve a meal prepared at the Pine Street Inn to about 250 people, said Beth Grand, who directs the Homeless Services Bureau at the Boston Public Health Commission.

She said staffers will be available to talk to homeless people who have struggled since leaving Long Island.

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“We have a lot of guests that have been out on Long Island for a lot of years. It was a very tight community,” Grand said. “Having lost kind of the home of Long Island, we expect people to be having a hard time.”

At St. Francis House, a day shelter for the homeless in downtown Boston, executive director Karen LaFrazia said several different factors are converging to strain their resources. About 30 people used to gather outside the shelter to get in right when doors opened at 7 a.m.

Now, those numbers have swelled to about 100 people and the shelter is opening earlier at 6:30 a.m., LaFrazia said.

She said the shelter is facing an increased demand for winter coats and boots.

The shelter is scheduling 250 appointments every week for people needing clothing, compared with 175 last year.

“We’re needing hundreds of coats a week,” LaFrazia said.

But Donald Galvin of Dorchester, one of a group of formerly homeless people who get groceries at the Franciscan Food Center, is looking forward to a brighter holiday this year.

The 63-year-old veteran said Thursday that he is better off this Thanksgiving because he recently got his own apartment with the help of a program run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I have my life back,” he said. “It really helped me out a great deal.”


Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.

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