The Community Shelter on Liberty Street served fewer people last year.
That sounds like good news until Patrice Nelson, executive director of Urban Ministries of Durham, explains.
The shelter served fewer people last year, she says, because the people who got in stayed longer.
That means less room for others standing in line - and the line is growing.
Statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Tuesday show the estimated percentage of Durham County residents living in poverty grew from 12.8 percent to 17 percent between 2008 and 2009.
For children under 18, the numbers shot up nearly 10 percentage points, from 15.5 percent to 24.1 percent.
The numbers come from the American Community Survey, a nationwide survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and considered accurate at a 90 percent confidence level.
"These reports are estimates - unlike the formal counts of the census - but strong ones," said Gene Nichol, director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC. "We have more people living in poverty, in raw numbers, than ever before."
Nelson and others on the county's poverty front lines see the daily struggles:
Enrollment in the Durham Public Schools' free and reduced lunch program rose from 47.2 percent to 57 percent of all students between the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years.
The More at Four pre-K program received 1,013 applications for its 420 slots this year, up from 883 applications last year. The program has a wait list of 450 children, up from 130 a year ago.
Enrollment in Food and Nutrition Services (formerly Food Stamps) has seen geometric increases, as both the need has increased and the county has worked to enroll more of those eligible. Recipients have gone from 24,115 in July 2008 to 32,275 in July 2009 to 35,060 in July 2010.
"We're seeing people request services who would not have thought they would set foot in a Department of Social Services," said Gerri Robinson, director of the Durham County DSS.
"And that is an ego breaker," she added. "It messes with people's self esteem."First come, first served
The Community Shelter regularly runs out of room.
In January, the shelter served 150 people per night, its highest monthly average ever. All told last year, occupancy rose 12 percent from 128 to 143 people per night.
The shelter offers up to 90 days for residents who work with case managers toward independent living, and up to 60 days for overnight guests served on a first-come, first served basis.
But when the 60 days are up, shelter staff have to tell people they must leave to make room for someone else. Some appeal their cases to Nelson.
"I tell them that I'm sorry, that we're doing the best we can do," she said. "I try to tell them about shelters in other parts of the Triangle ... that are also full."
"I don't know what to tell them."
The squeeze on families is even tighter. The shelter has just nine rooms for families and turns away an average of 10 families a week.
The percentage of Durham County families living below poverty - about $15,000 for a single parent with one child and about $22,000 for two parents with two children - rose from 8.8 percent to 11.5 percent, according to last week's statistics.
For single mothers with children under 18 the figure was 29.2 percent.
When Urban Ministries' family case manager started in May 2009, most women who brought their children in said it was because of domestic violence.
Today the majority have been evicted or lost their jobs, or both.
The county's Food and Nutrition Service numbers are the canary in the poverty coal mine. Enrollment is often the first signal of economic downturns and the benefit most recipients hold on to the longest until their income returns.
"We have been experiencing a steady, consistent rise in this caseload since 2001 and have not yet begun to see it begin to decline," said Sharon Hirsch, assistant director for customer accountability.
To put today's numbers in perspective, 12,783 people received Food Stamps in 2001 compared to the 36,610 in August of this year, Hirsch said.
Medicaid, another marker, has increased too, from 47,424 recipients to 48,282 recipients, Hirsch said.
The percentage of Durham residents eligible for Medicaid as a percentage of the population has increased from 12.7 percent in July 2007 to 15.4 percent in July 2010.
DSS director Robinson says the economy is not just hurting those with jobs. Her daughter-in-law is an attorney and has lawyer friends who have difficulty paying their rent.
"That 29 percent impacts everything we do," she said, citing Durham's female head of household poverty statistic.
"Talk to people who are unemployed with children," Robinson said. "Go to the nearest McDonald's and say 'How are you doing, what are you doing to prioritize?'
"I guarantee it's food, shelter, and the rest of it is gravy if I can get it."