The 34th annual Seattle Times Fund For The Needy campaign will benefit 12 local charities.

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It’s pitch black at 6:30 a.m., as Fai Mathews, dodging puddles on the sidewalk, slips her key into the door of a nondescript warehouse below the Spokane Street Viaduct, already rumbling with the morning commute.

Over the next few hours, Mathews will list, pack and deliver 134 of the 374,000 frozen meals Senior Services will take to homebound seniors in King County this year. The favorites: “a lot of fish and chips and Salisbury steak.”

And it’s pitch black again at 7:30 p.m. when The Salvation Army’s Becca Phillips greets men and women lined up outside a shelter in the basement of Seattle’s City Hall.

As often happens when it’s raining, more people have shown up than the shelter can hold, and some will need to look elsewhere.

From morning to night, often in little-seen ways, social-service agencies around Puget Sound are working to help the hungry, the homeless, the vulnerable, the forgotten.

In support of their efforts, The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy has launched its 34th annual campaign.

Since the fund’s creation in 1979, readers have given more than $15.4 million to help meet some of life’s varied needs: a nutritious meal, a winter coat, an hour of tutoring, a safe place to spend the night, a ride to the doctor, a toy at Christmas.

Even the difficult economy hasn’t deterred donors. Contributions to the 11-week campaign set records in each of the past four years. Last year’s total, $1,159,058, was more than 10 times the amount raised in the fund’s initial campaign.

“It says a lot about our community’s nurturing spirit that in this still-stagnant economy, they are willing to share so much,” said Diane Narasaki, executive director of Asian Counseling and Referral Service, one of the 12 agencies benefiting from the fund.

Like other agency leaders, Narasaki is feeling the pinch between increased community need and decreased government support. That makes donations from Times readers particularly important to maintaining the agency’s food bank, teen-advocacy programs, citizenship classes and mental-health counseling.

Numbers show aspects of the hard realities social-service agencies face:

An estimated 59,000 children were living below the poverty level in King County last year, according to the Census Bureau — nearly a 20 percent increase over the previous four years.

The unemployment rate in Washington was 8.2 percent last month. And while that’s down from double-digit readings in the depth of the recession, it still translates into 286,000 state residents unemployed and looking for work.

Homelessness remains acute. An overnight count in King County this year tallied 2,594 people spending the night in cars, in doorways, on benches, under roadways or just walking around. And that’s in addition to some 6,000 in shelters and transitional housing.

The people who devote their days and nights to tackling those challenges do so with grace and sensitivity, but little fanfare.

Senior Services’ Meals on Wheels warehouse faces Diagonal Avenue South, a street many Seattle natives probably couldn’t locate.

The City Hall shelter, operated from October through March, has no sign. Those who stay there hear about it on the street, or through agency referrals.

Each dollar donated to the Times fund is a vote of confidence in the work of people at the ground level, such as Mathews at Senior Services and Phillips at The Salvation Army.

Mathews, 59, is a five-year Senior Services driver with two children, two foster children and a nephew she raised — all now adults.

She’s had a variety of jobs, including managing a stadium-concession stand, working at a cleaners, being a teacher’s assistant and running her own day-care business, and she’s happiest when her work makes a tangible contribution to the community.

At Senior Services, she’s known not just for going the extra mile to help clients, but for bringing in balloons on co-workers’ birthdays.

“She’s outgoing and caring,” said her supervisor, Ed Robinson. “She’s hardworking and has the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known.”

For Mathews, weekly visits to her clients is a chance not just to drop off meals, but to check on the clients’ welfare. Most live alone, and it’s not uncommon for the “Meals” driver to be their only regular visitor.

At a stop in Seattle’s Maple Leaf area, Mathews asks Don Williams, 70, about his recovery from a recent heart attack, one of several health problems he’s coping with.

“When she asks how you’re doing, you can tell it’s sincere,” said Williams, who retired six years ago from an office job with the Department of Social and Health Services. He’s moving slowly these days, leaning on a cane.

Williams still lives in the brick Tudor his parents built in 1938, and which he purchased from their estate. He’d like to stay there as long as possible, and appreciates that Senior Services supports that goal.

Meals on Wheels drivers such as Mathews can connect their clients to the agency’s information and assistance program, to see if other types of support are needed and available.

“It’s an uplifting type job,” said Mathews. “You can’t help but feel good about what you’re doing.”

In one popular Senior Services program, more than 500 volunteer drivers take seniors to medical appointments throughout King County.

Most of the drivers, reimbursed at 45 cents a mile, are seniors themselves, because those are the people most likely to have weekdays free, said Cindy Zwart, Senior Services’ transportation director.

But as the recession has carved into people’s savings, many senior citizens are staying on the job longer, reducing the pool available for volunteer work.

As a result, Senior Services sometimes must turn down 20 to 30 ride requests a week, Zwart said.

Meals on Wheels recipients are asked to make a suggested donation of $3 a meal, but for many, even that is hard to come by. Donations in September averaged 56 cents a meal, about 14 percent of what it costs Senior Services to purchase and deliver a meal.

Working day in and day out with people in need can bring emotional highs and lows, said Phillips, coordinator at The Salvation Army food bank on Pike Street just above Interstate 5.

Phillips, 32, said her work is partly motivated by the support she received growing up in San Francisco.

“I had a dad who struggled with addiction, and my mom pretty much raised three of us kids in the inner city,” she said. “We were in food banks … and just about every community program there was. We were kids of the system.”

The Pike Street food bank, open Tuesday through Friday, serves between 700 and 900 households a month.

In addition, the center hands out about 400 sack lunches a month, on Mondays and Fridays. It also houses a shelter and a program to help domestic-violence victims.

After the food bank closes each day, Phillips heads to the downtown shelters, where she’ll walk the lines of the people waiting to get inside.

Usually, she’ll have packets of cookies to hand out, and she’ll share information about where people might get a hot meal, a shower, clothing or transitional housing.

“We try to reach out with love into our neighborhood,” she said. “We let people know that even if we don’t have everything they need, we can be a shelter, or at least, an open ear. Sometimes that alone can make a big difference.”

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or Seattle Times news researchers Gene Balk and Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.