In the wake of major cutbacks in government social spending and record unemployment, there is unprecedented demand this Christmas season for charitable services - food, clothing, shelter, heating assistance, and gifts for children.
Touched by the plight of their less fortunate neighbors, many individuals have increased their giving. But a number of charities are finding themselves short of funds as requests for aid outstrip donated resources. As a result, some charities are trimming the variety of services they offer or are reluctantly turning away needy individuals.
Virtually all major charities say requests for aid have risen, although the size of the increase varies.
''There has been a big increase in the number of families requesting assistance,'' says Col. Earnest Miller of the Salvation Army's national public affairs office. ''Requests are 25 percent ahead at a minimum and in some (cities) they have doubled.''
Agencies in the industrial Midwest have been inundated. For example, in Cleveland three parish hunger centers run by local Roman Catholic churches now feed more than 9,000 people, over twice as many as last year, according to the Rev. Thomas J. Harvey, executive director of the National Conference of Catholic Charities.
Meanwhile, Focus:Hope, a nonprofit food agency in Detroit, last month provided supplemental food to almost 50,000 pregnant women and young children, 35 percent more than a year ago, according to associate director Eleanor Josaitis. This Christmas the agency and a local television station have raised funds to feed 8,000 senior citizens out of the 300,000 seniors the agency estimates would benefit from such a meal.
In an effort to estimate how charitable demands have changed around the nation, six weeks ago the United Way of America surveyed 15 local chapters and found requests for food, shelter, health services, and family counseling ''up from 30 to 50 percent,'' says Stephen Delfin, a United Way spokesman.
Unfortunately, giving has not kept pace with the increased need. The United Way estimates that its recently completed fund drive will bring in 4.5 to 6 percent more than last year's receipts of $1.68 billion, or a little more than what is required to offset inflation.
Individual donations to all charities in 1982 are expected to be up about 10 percent from last year to roughly $49 billion, according to Fred Schnaue, vice-president of the American Association of Fund Raising Counsel, a group of professional fund-raisers. Roughly 47 percent of individual donations go to religious organizations.
No increase in foundation giving to charities is expected. And increased gifts from corporations will be ''very small if any, since corporate giving is influenced by the profit picture and that is not too good,'' Mr. Schnaue says. However, United Way officials report that an increasing number of companies are making resources - like accountants or computer time - available to charities.
Those who are solvent this holiday season seem increasingly grateful. ''This year we are getting an unusual number of letters making the point that we realize there is a greater need and we feel fortunate to have a home and therefore feel a special obligation'' to give, says Fred M. Hechinger, president of the New York Times Foundation and of the paper's Neediest Cases Fund. Both the number of donors and total donations to the fund are up from last year.
Traditionally, the bulk of aid to the poor has come from individuals with modest incomes, charity executives say. ''It is persons making under $25,000 a year who support services to the poor as opposed to the good life-style portion of the nonprofit sector - symphonies and museums - which are supported by the upper-middle class and the rich,'' says Catholic Charities director Harvey. ''Lower-income people are giving in proportions that are brave.''
In some cases, though, giving has not been sufficient to meet every individual need of which charities are aware. For example, ANC (Assistance for Needy Children) Mothers Inc. of Compton, Calif., annually provides Christmas packages of food, clothing, and toys for needy families. This year it had to cut the number of baskets it gives. ''In previous years we got more donations. The economy is so bad this year we can only help 150 families,'' says Audrey Rhoades , a coordinator of the program.
''Billions of dollars in cutbacks in federal programs have brought tremendous suffering for children and families which the private sector has been unable or unwilling to alleviate,'' says Thomas McAnally of United Methodist Communications. Charities will lose $33 billion in federal funds between 1982 and 1985, as measured in 1980 dollars, according to Urban Institute estimates.
To cope with increased demand and tighter budgets, United Way chapters are reexamining their priorities. Greater emphasis is being placed on providing food , clothing, and health care, with fewer resources going to organizations working for long-term social change.
''It is difficult to make ends meet and priorities have got to be set. You can't fund everyone,'' says United Way of America spokesman Delfin.
Some charity officials worry that budgets will get even tighter when the seasonal spur to generosity passes. ''We are definitely going to feel the pinch, '' says Focus:Hope executive Josaitis. ''What we are experiencing now is the generosity of the season and the help of a TV station in getting people to give. Call me in March and I'll be pleading for more help.''
''We hope (donations) are enough to pay our bills,'' adds Salvation Army spokesman Miller. ''We are trusting enough to expect they will be.''