As the weakened economy leaves more people struggling, higher costs are straining food banks, shelters and other nonprofit organization, which has less to give those they're trying to help.

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On the receiving end of the line stood the grandmother who gave every month to charity, back when she was a Boeing employee. In front of her, the middle-aged customer-service representative, laid off last month, a suitcase in hand to store her food. And then there was the young mother, sons swarming around her, trying to figure out the rules at this food bank in Federal Way.

She stood above the bread bin, peering in.

“Can we take as much as we want?” she asked a volunteer.

A few months ago, she would have heard a yes. But times are also tough on the giving end of the line. Donations at the Multi-Service Center are down, as they are at other food banks across the Puget Sound region. The stockpile of food is low. The answer that day was no.

As more residents struggle with the rising price of gas and food, the organizations that are their safety net are beginning to falter. Providers are running seriously over budget on fuel. Volunteer drivers are quitting. Staff members who commute are finding jobs closer to home. Demand is up as much as a third at some food banks — and donations are down that much or more.

In Seattle, the price of gas, combined with a decrease in donations, has triggered the worst funding shortfall in the 76-year history of the Union Gospel Mission. The shelter announced layoffs last month and starting today will curtail its pickup of donations in certain neighborhoods.

In Renton, the Operational Emergency Center (OEC) is struggling to make an upcoming balloon mortgage payment. Last year, it provided 189,000 people from Seattle and South King County with food and clothing. Now the organization is considering whether it can stay open.

“We’re just basically living from week to week,” said Dian Ferguson, executive director of the OEC.

Nonprofits hurting, too

It is, in some ways, the perfect storm of problems. The price of gas has shot up — from about $2.89 a year ago to about $4.06 today — and with it, the cost of food. All this in the midst of a tough economy, with more than 155,000 unemployment claims filed with the state in the first four months of the year, a 15 percent increase over the same period in 2007.

The whole thing has left nonprofits reeling.

“Things happened so quickly — they were just not prepared,” said Vince Matulionis, director of ending homelessness, for United Way of King County.

So, like the clients they serve, nonprofits are living lean — and in some cases, beyond their means. By late spring, Food Lifeline already had exceeded its transportation budget for the year by $35,000, United Way said.

Senior Services budgeted conservatively for gas this year but did not anticipate the jump in demand. The agency expects to deliver about 40,000 more meals this year — which is helping trigger a $90,000 deficit in the Meals on Wheels program alone.

“We’re definitely worried about how we’re going to end the year,” said Denise Klein, executive director of Senior Services.

And in the thick of a financial crisis, King County’s budget office has proposed cutting human services by a third in 2009.

That’s left Lee Harper, director of the Northshore Senior Center, considering other ways to cope — from increasing member fees to turning its coffee bar into a cafe to generate more revenue. Northshore has already reduced its gas costs by grouping seniors together on trips to the center.

At some nonprofits, particularly in the suburbs, the price of gas has also put pressure on staffing. On the Eastside, Hopelink has lost at least two employees in the past two months because of commuting costs. Concerned about a possible trend, both Hopelink and Sound Mental Health are now giving bus passes to employees.

Pressure on volunteers

But how long will the volunteers hang in? Northshore relies on hundreds of them to handle the reception desk, serve the meals and run the activities.

“Without volunteers, we’d have to close our doors,” Harper said.

Now some are cutting back on the number of times per week they come in. Staff members are scrambling to plug the holes.

Nonprofits like Senior Services and Lifelong AIDS Alliance depend on volunteers to deliver food to the homebound and escort the sick to medical appointments. In better times, drivers did not ask for mileage reimbursement. But many are retired or disabled and living on fixed incomes; now the requests are coming fast and furious.

Agencies are trying to raise the rates to meet the need. Still, at several agencies, a handful of drivers have already dropped out.

David Wash can understand why. He lives on Social Security disability checks, and it can get expensive, driving his truck from his home in Bothell to the food warehouse in Seattle, then around the Eastside. Last year, he drove about 2,165 miles for Chicken Soup Brigade, which delivers food to people living with HIV or AIDS, and others who are housebound.

Wash, 46, considered dropping his route. But his partner convinced him they could make small sacrifices — sack lunches and home-brewed coffee.

“I don’t believe we have a choice,” Wash said. “We have to help these people.”

And to be honest, Wash said, it helps him to be getting out there that one day a week — to knock on the door, see the smile, hear the thanks. To walk away knowing he has something precious to give.

Stockpiles way down

The good news is, there’s enough food to make it through August. The bad news is, in summers past, three or four months’ worth of food sat in that warehouse at the Multi-Service Center.

Such is the state of the economy. Even a recent Boy Scout food drive on the Eastside fell short this year — down to 15,000 items from 50,000 last year.

At some food banks, donations are still streaming in. But at the Multi-Service Center, they’re down about a third. That includes contributions from groceries, which can no longer afford to overstock.

Gas prices have eaten into its budget, and money the center does have for food buys less: A 12-ounce can of baby formula that cost the Multi-Service Center $6.44 last August now costs $12.35.

And the demand is only growing. Several Seattle food banks reported to United Way during the spring that they were seeing nearly 20 percent more clients than last year. Some had hired extra security to handle anxious clients, some of whom are being turned away for lack of food.

United Way can help with grants here and there. But the goal, officials said, is long-term solutions. A recent hunger summit included talk of connecting more clients to food stamps, tax credits, job training and education.

In other words, eliminating their need for food banks.

But that day seemed far away recently, with an hourlong line out the door of the food bank in Federal Way.

Gas prices had pushed some people to serious compromises. No meat during the week. Stews, casseroles, anything that lasts three people a couple of days — that’s what Jean Gross, the laid-off customer-service representative, makes with fixings from the food bank. Her system seems to be working, for now.

“If I don’t get to work fast, we’ll be in trouble,” she said.

The grandmother, Sylvia Springfield, had just given up her telephone. And borrowed money for gas. She hated to see herself this way — a 61-year-old former Boeing employee with bills to pay and no steady way to pay them.

As often as she can afford it, Springfield gets out there and drives to job interviews. She sees how far she can take herself with the needle hovering on empty.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or csolomon@seattletimes.com. News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.