SAN JOSE -- The line, which began at the Sacred Heart Community Service entrance, kept growing in the cold and damp early morning hours, snaking around the building, down South First Street and eventually taking a turn at Floyd Street.

About 250 people, including parents holding hands of small children, were waiting when the doors opened at 7:30 a.m. Friday just so they could register for Sacred Heart's annual Holiday Food and Toy distribution program.

This is what they were willing to do to make sure there is food on the table for Thanksgiving and Christmas as well as holiday presents for their kids. First in line was Corina Lopez, huddled beneath a blanket, who had been camped out since 11 a.m. Thursday.

"This is such a blessing," said Lopez, a San Jose single mother with three children who also takes care of her mom. "We just don't have enough to say, 'Well, we can get gifts this year.' We have to count pennies just to have gas in the car."

Sacred Heart expects to distribute food boxes to 4,000 families at Thanksgiving and 3,200 more at Christmas as well as hand out 16,500 toys to 5,500 children. Sacred Heart officials had discouraged people from lining up in advance -- trying to assure them that everyone would be able to register. But Executive Director Poncho Guevara also understood why some were taking no chances.

"They don't want to feel like they're risking not getting something," he said.

While there are indications the economy is improving, the scene was a reminder that hard times continue for the unemployed and the underemployed.

Reina Vertiz said she often made donations to Sacred Heart when she worked. But she has been unemployed for two years and her husband, a painter, has seen his job slow. Friday, she was second in line.

"I supported them when I could, and now I'm very grateful that they can help now that I'm in this situation," said Vertiz, who has a 6-year-old daughter. "Trying to find a job has been very frustrating. And if I do get a job, then I would be handing my paycheck to the day-care center at the end of the week."

The poverty rate in Santa Clara County is 10.1 percent, and 12.6 percent for children under age 18, according to the 2009-2011 American Community Survey. County Supervisor Dave Cortese, who watched the registration process begin, described "a great paradox" between the inherent wealth of the region's high-tech industry and the everyday struggles of the working poor.

"Folks in this line might not have jobs, but they sure want them," Cortese said. "Anybody who would stand out here all night long waiting just to register for food is a hardworking person in my mind. Programs like food baskets are a good stopgap. But we have to find jobs to match their skills."

Sacred heart has assisted about 60,000 people this year.

"We're seeing record numbers of people and hardship every day," said Lydia Guel, director of self-sufficiency programs. "I keep hearing about things getting better, and yet we have people lined up around the building. If the community doesn't care of each other locally, then who is?"

The community will have to help. Jay Pecot, the director of development, said they had four turkeys in their freezer. Anyone interested in assisting can visit www.sacredheartcs.org/holidays to make a donation, volunteer or arrange food and toy drives.

"This program helps so much," said Lopez, who visits Sacred Heart twice a month. "They put food in my cupboard, whether its canned peaches or SpaghettiO's. All I ask for is that my kids have full tummies."

Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.