A pile of unopened mail sits on the front counter.

Incoming phone calls go directly to the voice-mail system.

Beyond the front desk - unattended because the receptionist was laid off - are darkened offices and empty cubicles.

The Caring People Alliance has operated in Philadelphia for nearly eight decades, battling an array of social ills and striving to help children in need. But unless something happens to end the state budget impasse, and soon, the agency may not see the new year.

The 11-week-old stalemate in Harrisburg has cut off the flow of government dollars to the alliance and dozens of other social-service providers across Pennsylvania. Some survive through the generosity of their bankers. Others could soon go out of business.

The Caring People Alliance sits perched on the abyss. In normal times, it operates on a budget of $115 million. Today, it's literally struggling to keep the lights on.

"I don't think I can scrape anything more out of this place," said president and chief executive officer Arlene Bell, her eyes brimming. "It's the unthinkable. My God, do we really just shut down?"

In August, the alliance slashed wages to conserve cash. Pay dropped to the minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, for hourly employees and to $455 a week for exempt employees.

It wasn't enough.

Last week, the agency laid off 110 people, a third of its workforce of 340. Certain programs saw their staffs halved.

So far, Bell said, the alliance has not refused services to a single family. She's proud of that. But it can't last much longer.

The bulk of the alliance's life-sustaining funding comes from the government. Now the agency is starving - day by day, dollar by dollar. It used up its $2 million cash reserve, money kept for emergencies. Its $4.5 million credit line is gone.

The people who supply the office water coolers called. They're coming to remove the dispensers because they haven't been paid.

"We're going through our own version of 'Plan C,' " Bell said.

That plan is, of course, Mayor Nutter's label for a doomsday budget that would eliminate 3,000 city workers and close libraries and health clinics.

Walk the halls of the Caring People Alliance main office, at 18th Street and JFK Boulevard, and you see similar cuts on a smaller scale. And you see some of the human cost of the budget stalemate.

There's no one to greet visitors at the front desk. It may seem a small thing, the loss of a secretary. But people who seek help from the alliance often have complicated, overlapping problems. It was important to have someone at the gate who knew the agency's operations, who could direct people to the right place for help.

The head of human resources was laid off. So was the quality-assurance manager. And the head of data management.

The nameplates of departed workers still sit on desks. Some people left behind photos of their children, confident they would return once the budget was sorted out.

But that sorting, when it finally occurs, may be too late.

"The day of reckoning is coming quickly," leaders of the United Way and other civic groups wrote to the governor and legislators this week. "If this impasse is not resolved soon, many agencies in the state will be forced to close their doors, leaving thousands of seniors, children, families, the homeless, and others with nowhere to turn for help."

Yesterday, legislative leaders and senior administration aides in Harrisburg continued to negotiate some of the details of a Pennsylvania budget, and although progress was reported, there was no final deal.

At the alliance, chief financial officer Ed Christie has no illusions. The agency can limp a while longer, he said, but "the end of October doesn't look very good for us."

And that's hard to face, because "there's a lot of people that need our help."

The alliance is a comprehensive provider, serving 30,000 people, combating everything from drug abuse to domestic violence, offering services from foster care to day care. It works to prevent delinquency, shield children from neglect, and teach life skills to pregnant teenagers.

It was founded in 1932, in the Depression, by District Attorney Charles Edwin Fox and philanthropist Samuel Fels. Called the Crime Prevention Association, the agency tried to help young people find jobs when millions were out of work.

This week, the remaining staff divided a list of government officials to call in an effort to shake loose some of the $2 million the agency is owed from June. And to search for grants, even $50,000 or $25,000, to keep the alliance alive.

"It's a very somber situation here," said Tony Diodati, director of the agency's South Philadelphia center, which runs pre- and after-school programs and activities for seniors. "I've been in the field for 40 years, and I've never seen anything like this. Never seen anything lacking the attention from the political people. There doesn't seem to be any sense of urgency."

Nine center workers disappeared in layoffs. Among them were the two who ran a program to help teenagers with homework and computers. That growing program served 45 kids. Now it's gone.

Senior citizens, about 1,000 of whom rely on the center, keep asking if the alliance will survive - worried they'll have nowhere to go if it doesn't.

Bell wonders what's next. After laying off a third of the workforce, do you lay off another third? And then half of that? Can an agency so decimated be brought back to life?

In working with children, she always set the goal of "keep the lights on." Not the lights in a house or an office - in a child's eyes. Keep the lights on. Keep them safe and fed and involved in the world.

"It's important," she said. "It's being treated as though it's unimportant."

Bell has followed the debate in Harrisburg over what money is too much or too little to spend on education. And she knows that soon those arguments will be moot.

"We won't be around to talk about early-childhood education in a couple months," she said. "There's not going to be anybody left to provide that sort of thing."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.