Banks on Both Coasts Launch Efforts to Aid Homeless as Number of Individuals and Families in Need Rises

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NEW YORK -- In a holiday season that relief groups say has seen a sharp rise in the number of homeless individuals and families, there is evidence that banks are showing a heightened concern for the plight of those without shelter or food.

"More corporations are becoming active, because there are more and more homeless people," notes Roberta Ruocco, secretary of the contributions committee, Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. of New York. "It's not just men, though, that are homelss now, but whole families. Once senior citizens and children are brought into the situation, that tends to attract more publicity."

Ruth Jones-Saxey, who manages the charitable contributions of First Interstate Bancorp, Los Angeles, says that "certainly the last two years have seen increased attention" to the plight of the homeless by her company. Like Ms. Ruocco, she also cites as a reason the rising number of children living in desperate circumstances in the Sun Belt cities where the First Interstate network has banks.

Other statistics bear then out on the burgeoning scope of the problem. Demand for food provided by private assistance programs increased 17% this year, according to the Food Research Action Center, a Washington, D.C., public interest group. And more than 40% f those assistance agencies reported turning people away for lack of food, the action center said.

Morgan Guaranty's Charitable Trust will spend $3,000 with six community groups to host Christmas meals for senior citizens, most of whom are destitute, according to Ms. Ruocco. Last year, the banking firm devoted resources to federally funded United Neighborhood Houses, an organization that encourages people to work, at least part of the week, to qualify for assistance.

First Interstate Bank of California gave $40,000 to several self-help organizations in Los Angeles' skid row area, including a downtown women's center as well as a transition house for skid row denizens, Ms. Jones-Saxey said.

Marian Stern, assistant vice president, Chemical Bank, says, "In the interest of good corporate citizenship, we've tried to give more money to groups interested in survival issues." Chemical has given $250,000 to groups involved in helping the homeless and hungry this year, Ms. Stern said, "a significant increase over last year."

Some people suggest that banks are merely embracing the popular charity of the moment to enhance their public recognition. …