Camille M. Loverdi had been eating beef patties from her freezer for days, so she was disappointed last week when she finally broke down and went to the soup kitchen and found cheeseburgers on the menu.
But the lunch served by volunteers at Community Missions of Niagara Frontier was hot, the French fries had a tasty spice and Loverdi couldn't afford to be picky.
"Thank God this place is here," said Loverdi, as she wrapped up loaves of bread in a plastic bag to take home.
She is 45, wears thick glasses and keeps her personal items in a sensible fanny pack, since she bikes around the city.
"I don't get food stamps; I don't get Medicaid, and I don't have health care," she said.
It has been nearly a year since Loverdi left a job at Sam's Club because she hurt her back. She thought she could find another retail job quickly, but the return phone calls from prospective employers never came.
As winter begins, her savings have grown thin. Loverdi doesn't like to think about what could happen to the Welch Avenue house she bought two years ago through Neighborhood Housing Services if she doesn't find work soon.
Loverdi is teetering between two worlds. She owns her home, but turns to Community Missions when she is desperate for food. She considers herself among the lucky ones in line for a free meal.
"I come when I need to," Loverdi said. "Some people come every single day."
Area social workers say they are seeing a growing number of residents like Loverdi struggling to stay afloat. They also are seeing an increase in the number of people losing their homes when the struggle becomes too much.
"Basically, we're just getting overwhelmed in terms of more people than we've ever had that have come to our homeless shelter," said Don Luce, director of development for Community Missions.
Luce said the Missions' emergency homeless shelter, which took in 409 people last year, has on many nights this year served five to six more people than it did on similar nights last year. The shelter consistently uses overflow rooms now that were rarely used in the past.
That may be because some people are staying in emergency housing longer, said Grant W. Babcock, director of operations for Community Missions.
The agency totals the number of nights each individual stays in its emergency shelter during a year to track the need for emergency housing. The shelter saw that number increase by 16 percent from 2005, when 3,451 nights were used, to 2006, when people used 4,204 nights.
During that same time period, the number of individuals who stayed at the shelter rose about 4 percent, from 395 to 409.
Statistics are not yet available for this year, but Luce said he expects the numbers to be higher.
Increased homelessness is the latest trend in a community plagued by bleak statistics.
When the U.S. Census bureau last tallied the city's poor in 2000, it found that one in three children was living in poverty.
Sister Mary McCarrick of Heart, Love and Soul food pantry in Niagara Falls believes that the city's poverty levels will likely follow trends tracked in Buffalo when the population is measured again.
New Census estimates released this summer showed poverty rates in Buffalo increased between 2005 and 2006. The report ranked Buffalo as the second-poorest big city in the nation.
"It's very possible that the same thing has happened in Niagara Falls," said McCarrick, who spent four months researching the city's Census figures and poverty guidelines. She noted that poverty rates in several upstate cities have followed the same trend.
"The one thing that's worse in Niagara Falls consistently than in Buffalo is unemployment," she said.
The state Department of Labor reported a 5.7 percent unemployment rate in Niagara Falls in October, compared with 5.3 percent in Buffalo. In September, the Niagara Falls unemployment rate was 6 percent, compared with 5.7 percent in Buffalo.
McCarrick wasn't shocked to see new homeless trends emerging in Niagara Falls.
"What's unusual is not that we're finding the homeless, but that we haven't found them sooner," she said. "Usually with this level of poverty, you expect to find homelessness sooner. Homelessness is highly coordinated to poverty, disability and mental illness. Given that our poverty is high and our disability level is high, you would expect to see probably more homelessness than we've seen."
McCarrick said cheap boarding houses in the community and strong services for the disabled have helped keep some residents in their homes.
Those long-term services are part of an attempt by agencies that deal with the poor in Niagara County to create a way to deal with all aspects of homelessness.
Buffalo native Kevin Malone, 45, credits Community Missions for giving him a place to live. Malone works three hours a week doing laundry for a local company and fixes bikes on the side. Because he has a mental illness, Malone said, he has lived in supportive housing at Community Mission's Niagara Falls site for six years.
Local agencies are trying to pinpoint why homelessness has appeared to worsen within the last year and how the problem can be addressed. A countywide coalition of about 40 nonprofit groups, social service agencies and private businesses have joined together to document homelessness in Niagara County and create a unified plan for addressing the problem.
In January, the group will conduct an annual survey throughout the county to count the number of people receiving help at various agencies.
The Niagara County Coalition for Services to the Homeless also is working to create a "continuum of care" model for addressing the wide range of homeless needs, from short-term, emergency housing to expanding long-term affordable housing options. The coalition has applied for additional federal money to address homelessness in the county.
McCarrick said there could be several factors contributing to the homeless problem.
Are increasing home prices in the city trickling down to those who rent?
Are rising costs making quality of life decline?
Or are the city's two soup kitchens -- typically the first line of help for the homeless -- simply more attuned to the problem?
"More people are coming to [Heart and Soul] who do not have a place to live, even though there are many vacant apartments in Niagara Falls and quite a number of boarding houses in the neighborhood," McCarrick said. "Some people are mentally ill, others are developmentally delayed and others have fallen on dreadful times."
Luce believes that rising gasoline and food prices are a contributing factor.
"We're getting more homeless people coming to us," Luce said. "As the prices go up for milk and eggs and bread and butter, then people just can't make it anymore."
The price pinch also is affecting donations that typically come to Community Missions and other agencies.
Luce said holiday donations of turkeys and other goods have been down so far this year, and he worries that will impact the rest of the year, when fewer people are focused on helping the poor.
"I think everybody is having a hard time. It's not just the poor. It's also the middle class, the people that bring us cans of tuna fish and pasta," Luce said. "Middle income people are suffering. Prices are going up, and they're just having real trouble making ends meet. It's a very hard time for the poor, and it's a very hard time for the middle class."
Loverdi seems to be caught between the two classes. Life has changed drastically in the last year as job prospects have dried up.
The Buffalo native attended Niagara County Community College briefly when she was young, but she bounced between programs before leaving school to take a job.
Since then, she has worked at Kmart, driven school buses and waited tables. She applied for a job at the Seneca Niagara Casino when it first opened, but didn't have any luck. She is reluctant to try again, even though a friend tells her they have more jobs.
As she bundled up last week in a Buffalo Bills jacket and knit cap for her bike ride home from the Community Missions' kitchen, Loverdi tried a new approach.
"You know anyone hiring?" she asked the soup kitchen supervisor. "I don't want to work in a casino. I really don't."