The relentless recession is sparing no one, including poor children at holiday time.

Like food, coats and other donated items, this season toys are in short supply.

At the Camden Rescue Mission, the Rev. Al Stewart has 4,500 toys to give away to poor children today. The problem is, 7,000 boys and girls are scheduled to show up.

"I'm here going bananas," fretted Stewart, whose donated-toy supply is down by 40 percent over last year. "We're up against the clock, and there's not enough toys. I haven't seen anything like it in 20 years. Oh, I'm losing weight over this."

In Camden, in Philadelphia, all over the United States, the story is the same. A dreadful economy is severely impinging donated items, toys included.

Toys for Tots, one of the few holiday-only charitable programs that provides toys in this area, has half the number of toys it did last year - 20,000 compared with 40,000, according to Marine Gunnery Sgt. Robert Putney, Philadelphia coordinator of the program.

"Donations are slow," said Putney. The Marine Corps Reserve runs Toys for Tots. "We're down 30 percent across the country compared to previous years."

Locally, The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and are leading an effort to augment shortfalls at Toys for Tots. But the organization's problems have a ripple effect.

"All other agencies depend on Toys for Tots for the toys they give away," said Steveanna Wynn, executive director of the SHARE Food Program. "And agency directors are freaking out."

Generally, Wynn explained, people who help the poor for a living have a good understanding of what's required come holiday time. Their charitable calculus balances expected donations and anticipated need.

But this year, so much is out of sync that the experts are scrambling. And nervous. For example, Philabundance, the largest hunger relief organization in the region, is down 32 percent in food donations this year over last, a spokeswoman said.

"There's this number in your head," said Wynn. "If I have this much, I'll be OK. But the people who just made do in the past can no longer make it, and they're coming to us for help, increasing demand."

At the same time, donations are down because people have less to give.

"The middle class used to support us," Stewart said. "But they've taken a hit, and a few people have gone from being middle-class donors to being in need themselves."

In the past, several companies in the area have held holiday parties at which employees would donate toys for charity.

"But companies are scaling back," said Renee Archawski, executive director of Greater Philadelphia Cares. No parties, no toys.

The Salvation Army of Greater Philadelphia is experiencing a 20 percent to 30 percent drop-off in toy donations this year, according to spokesman Randall Thomas.

"And because more people than ever need toys for their families, we're falling even further behind," he added. "Kids aren't aware of the financial situation their parents are in. So, unfortunately, they'll have to experience a holiday without a new toy to play with."

Such may be the case at Women Against Abuse, a domestic-violence shelter in Philadelphia.

There, interim executive director Heather Keafer said, women and children hide from abusive, possibly homicidal, husbands and partners.

At any given time - including Christmas - there can be 50 to 60 children living in the shelter.

Often, Keafer said, the women and children arrive in a hurry, with only the clothes on their backs. So the shelter depends on toy donations, often from Toys for Tots, to allow the harbored families to have at least a modicum of a holiday.

"Because toy donations are down," Keafer said, "we are really struggling to have enough for everybody."

Typically, the shelter sets up a kind of free store where women can select toys for their children. It provides traumatized children with gifts, and it allows the women to feel as if they are able to cheer up their children at an awful time in their lives.

But the dire economy is threatening even these small comforts.

"We have to trust in God to help us," said Stewart, of the Camden Rescue Mission. "And we need people with a Christmas heart to come through."

To Help

People wanting to donate to Toys for Tots may drop off presents at The Inquirer and Daily News Building, 400 N. Broad St., around the clock through 5 p.m. Monday.

To donate toys for families in the Women Against Abuse shelter, take the items to the shelter's business office, 100 S. Broad St., Suite 1341, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. The shelter also offers donation pick-up. Call 215-386-1280 for arrangements.