Extreme poverty on rise in the state

The canned peaches have dwindled and candied yams have all but disappeared, replaced by empty crates piled high inside the Stop Hunger Inc. warehouse nestled at Northeast 120th Street and 14th Avenue in North Miami.

On some mornings, the line extends out to the parking lot, so 77-year-old Shirley Williams arrives early, about 8 a.m., and pushes her wheelchair out of the sweltering heat. ''At my age, you can't afford to get lost in the crowd,'' Williams joked on a recent Tuesday.

Farther north, hundreds pack the tiny two-story building at Broward County's Cooperative Feeding Program, where staff members have had to add a second meal to daily feedings.

The crowds -- and the increasing demand for food -- reflect a growing number of people across the state pushed into severe poverty, with income levels at or below half of the federal poverty line. Their numbers increased from 859,888 in 2000 to 943,670 in 2005, a 9.7 percent rise, according to new census data.

Over those years, Broward's number of severely poor grew from 77,942 to 82,327; Palm Beach County's increased from 57,855 to 63,327. Miami-Dade County had a slight decrease, from 161,301 to 158,593.

However, Miami-Dade's 6.8 percent deep-poverty rate was among the highest in the state. The numbers suggest that the region's rising cost of living is not just squeezing the middle class and the working poor, but pushing the poorest further under the radar.

''We hear of professional people leaving Miami because of the high cost of living all the time,'' said Daniella Levine, executive director of the Human Services Coalition. ``But for the very poor, there's not a lot of options.''

It's happening despite a record-low unemployment rate, 3.5 percent.

''There's a great deal of construction going on which has created tons of jobs,'' said Barry E. Johnson, president of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.

Construction is expected to create about 1,400 jobs a year for the next eight years, said Rick Beasley, executive director of the South Florida Workforce. The problem: Those jobs are not available to most unskilled workers.

''The construction jobs are there, but we're suffering a shortage in labor skills,'' Beasley said. ``We need to be more focused on offering job-training initiatives.''

Experts argue that government-sponsored social programs that include required job training, early-education intervention and better mental-health services are the most effective remedy for extreme poverty.

''We would have to become more European,'' said Bruce Nissen, director of research for the Institute on Social and Economic Policy at Florida International University. In the meantime, volunteers at South Florida food banks see more and more new faces while their supply diminishes.

''We don't know half the people who come in here now. And our food shelves are constantly empty,'' said Marti Forman, head of the Cooperative Feeding Program in Broward. The pantry has increased meals 24 percent from 2004 to 2005, Forman said.

At Stop Hunger, meal distributions have doubled to half a million meals a month in the last five years. The center also distributes food to 82 neighboring churches.

''We see more and more people . . . but our supplies have been cut considerably,'' said Malcolm Gabriel, Stop Hunger's executive director for programs. ``There's just a growing sense of desperation.''

At the warehouse, Santiago Torres waited until most people left before picking up his own supplies. ''I'm embarrassed,'' the 33-year old custodian said with a sigh. ``I've never done this before . . . but I can't let my kids starve.''