Sitting at a table of strangers in a steamy gymnasium, Michael Brisco poked at turkey on his Styrofoam plate and reflected on the reversals that had buffeted his life these past few months.
First, the 43-year-old truck driver was laid off from his job at the state Department of Agriculture. Then, difficulties with unemployment benefits left him without any income at all. Finally, unable to pay rent on his apartment in the Washington Hill neighborhood of East Baltimore, he found himself out on the street.
On Thursday, for the first time in his life, Brisco availed himself of a free Thanksgiving dinner. He was one of tens of thousands of Baltimoreans who waited in line for turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce at the annual Thanks for Giving meal at the Bea Gaddy Family Center in Patterson Park.
"A lot of times, we have too much pride to come to a place like this," he said. "But I saw that line, and I knew this place was blessed. I thank God for it."
Some economists say the worst recession since the Great Depression has ended. But with the national unemployment rate in double digits and the economy still hemorrhaging jobs, charity officials reported seeing thousands of new faces turning up for giveaway holiday meals this year.
"Of course there's more need - absolutely," said Peggy Vick, director of volunteer and family services for the Salvation Army in Baltimore. She estimated that one-third of the Marylanders receiving Thanksgiving baskets from the organization's Baltimore Area Command this year were first-timers.
"We've seen an upswing of people who have just recently lost their jobs," Vick said. "They've not only had one person laid off in their family, both people have been laid off in their family, and so they've had a difficult time trying to sustain their household."
Because organizations such as the Salvation Army and the Bea Gaddy Family Center offer alternatives on Thanksgiving, the holiday is a relatively quiet day at Our Daily Bread, the city's largest soup kitchen. But program manager Dennis Murphy says the number of meals served there seven days a week has increased by more than a quarter in the last year.
"We're seeing people who need to stretch their dollars more," he said. "Not everybody who comes here is necessarily unemployed or homeless. Maybe a husband or wife is unemployed, and the family income has dropped as a result."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last week that more than one in seven American households experienced food insecurity in 2008. That was the highest level since the annual survey was initiated in 1995 and reflected the greatest year-over-year increase.
Of the 17 million food-insecure households, more than a third suffered "very low food security," meaning that the food intake of some household members was reduced and their eating patterns disrupted at times. In raw numbers, the number of households with very low food security increased from 4.7 million in 2007 to 6.7 million in 2008, a gain of more than 40 percent.
At midday Thursday, the line snaking out of the Bea Gaddy Family Center stretched hundreds deep. Volunteers aim to serve 50,000 men, women and children each Thanksgiving, but center director Cynthia Brooks said they had not received enough donations this year.
"There's more need and less resources," she said. "The organizations that we rely on can't afford to help."
Still, she expected the center to serve tens of thousands, including thousands of first-timers.
They included 35-year-old Luminosa Nolasco, who lost her job at a McDonald's a year ago after falling down a flight of stairs, and now was dining with daughters Luz Fernanda and Amairani Tornes.
Twenty-eight-year-old Lorenzo Marino, with wife, Matilda, and son Cesar, said his restaurant job does not pay enough to cover the bills.
Gary Slavinsky, 31, said he has been unable to find steady work since he got out of prison in January for a robbery conviction.
"It's definitely the economy," said Slavinsky, who has been sleeping in shelters or under a bridge. "I had a heroin habit three years ago, and it was still easier to work."
Michael Brisco had rebuilt his life after losing his home and his mother to Hurricane Katrina. The New Orleans native had heard Baltimore was a God-fearing city, and he believed its location along the Northeast Corridor would make it a good spot for an over-the-road trucker to find work.
In one sense, it was a good choice: He did work, for a while, and since his layoff in July, he has drawn cash assistance from the churches that drew him here.
"It hasn't been an easy year, man, honestly," Brisco said. "I didn't think I was going to make it."
But things are looking up. After months of homelessness, he has secured state help with moving into an apartment. He's still looking for work.
"What I really want is for somebody to donate me a truck," he said. "Then I would be independent. Maybe bring food to places like this."