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ROME (Reuters) - In happier times, ice-cream seller Antonio Siracusa would have considered turning to relatives for help when he lost his job in a cinema in Rome. But these are not happy times.
So Siracusa chooses to go to a free canteen run by Christians in the district of Trastevere for dinner, and picks up free food parcels for other meals.
"I have siblings, but I don't want anything from them," said Siracusa, as he stood in line at the Sant'Egidio charity's diner, adding that he didn't feel comfortable bothering them in such tough economic times. "The community here are my family."
A deep recession and rising unemployment has piled pressure on all Italians and may even be undermining Italy's most reliable social safety net in periods of financial difficulty - the family.
Christian charities say many Italians appear to be ashamed of turning to relatives already struggling in the economic crisis or are coping with the effects of divorce, the incidence of which has doubled in Italy since 1995.
Youth unemployment, at about 35 percent, is keeping sons and daughters at home even into their 30s and causing them to delay starting families of their own, while pension cuts have increased the additional support needed by the elderly.
"Social security in Italy has traditionally been the family. The problem is that families have become overloaded in the present crisis," said Augusto D'Angelo, who works at the Sant'Egidio diner.
The state has never offered a comprehensive jobless benefits system, and the debt crisis has forced it to further curb spending, limit pensions and hike taxes as part of austerity measures aimed at reining in strained public finances.
The Church, which still has strong influence in Italy despite a steady erosion in regular attendance numbers in recent years, has been stepping in where the family or government has failed to provide.
"If you go to the town hall for help, there are fixed responses, which they find it hard to deviate from. Church structures can be more flexible," D'Angelo said.
Unemployed barman Paride Santilli, 57, said he turns to his priest when he needs a warm meal, medicine or a new pair of shoes.
"When you go to the Church, they don't give you money, but they help you get what you need," said Santilli, who has no extended family to rely on.
"They sorted out a public transport pass for me, and some contact lenses," he said.
The number of Italians coming each evening to the Trastevere canteen has risen to about 200-250 from 100-150 about a year ago, D'Angelo said. Requests for food parcels that people can take home have also risen by at least 10 percent.
Pensioner Maria, 77, started coming more frequently after her landlady raised her room rate to 300 euros from 250 euros, burning more than three-quarters of her monthly income.
"I have to go to various free food handouts around Rome for breakfast, lunch and dinner," she said. She said she did have relatives in Turin but preferred to get by without them.
The crisis is fuelling feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and anger and causing tensions within families, according to Paolo Cruciani, psychology professor at Rome's La Sapienza University and vice president of the Lazio region's guild of psychologists.
"The ideal response is for family members to pull together, but we see explosions of conflict, with relatives accusing each other of not having made enough pension provisions," Cruciani said.
"This can create internal crises: children develop distrust of parents, and mothers and fathers face anxiety because they worry they have not properly provided for their offspring. Meanwhile elderly people face shame and desperation when they find their pensions don't cover their needs."
The number of people living in absolute poverty in Italy, a country of about 60 million, rose to 3.4 million in 2011, or 5.7 percent, up from 5.2 percent in 2010, data from statistics office ISTAT showed.
Those living in relative poverty for Italian standards were roughly stable at 8.2 million, or 13.6 percent. But among families with no workers and no pensioners, the relative poverty rate rose to 51 percent from 40 percent.
"A growing number of people are falling from poverty into a state of misery," said Francesco Soddu, head of Catholic charity Caritas Italiana, at a church conference on poverty in Naples. "People who used to live a dignified life now find they are having to beg for food."
The rate of suicides for economic motives in Italy surged to 198 in 2009, easing to 187 in 2010 but still up by a quarter compared with 150 in 2008, according to a report by research institute EURES.
Most people eating at the Sant'Egidio canteen have little hope their situation will improve in the near future.
"It's very hard to find work, stores aren't doing much business, there's an enormous crisis of demand," said Siracusa.
Others have found ways to stay active by joining Christian networks.
Santilli, the barman, who had to sleep in dormitories after he lost his job and spent some nights on the street, said he had started volunteering at another free soup kitchen.
"You have to be hard, keep busy and make intelligent choices," he said. "I am worried about the crisis but I'm not crying, if you cry then it's all over."
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall