Attention the last few months on increased demand at food shelves and emergency shelters in the Twin Cities sheds welcome light on our neighbors' plight.

But it misses the point.

We can no longer afford to talk only about crisis intervention, emergency shelters and food shelves. We must focus on the long-term picture. We as a society fail to realize an investment of a relatively small amount of money often prevents people from sliding into poverty, provides necessary medical care, child care and housing — and ultimately saves taxpayers money.

The state and national systems that provide health care, mental health care, housing and emergency social services need reform. Proof can be found in the sheer volume of people seeking help from our agencies.

In January, nearly 6,000 people slept on the floor of the Dorothy Day Center, one of Catholic Charities' shelters in St. Paul. That's 300 more than in December. In the same month, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota helped 2,000 people struggling with credit card debt or the threat of mortgage foreclosure. An additional 1,000 people were put on waiting lists.

We anticipate the number of people seeking emergency shelter and mortgage foreclosure assistance will grow for the foreseeable future. But those increases didn't appear in just the last six months. And they won't automatically reverse when the unemployment rate hits 3 percent and the temperature reaches 80 degrees.

Poverty grew for the last 10 years, during the greatest economic expansion in history. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2 million more children lived in poverty in 2007 than in 2000.

Our staff on the front lines spend the majority of time managing people and little time managing real needs that allow people to find and walk their paths out of poverty. Though society will always need emergency shelters and food shelves, we cannot rely on them to eliminate poverty and homelessness and restore economic prosperity.

The conversations at the Capitol shouldn't focus on whether to cut medical coverage or veterans benefits or higher education. The conversation must focus on investing in all people and working toward long-term solutions.

Investing in people means meeting their basic needs of food, shelter and health care and not just for the next 30 or 60 or 90 days. A new biennium won't bring an end to this problem. We can no longer afford to balance the budget today by neglecting the responsibilities of two, four or six years from now. We must talk about long-term, comprehensive health, mental health, supportive housing and social services reform.

In the scope of the state's $33 billion budget, the cost of investing in people through food, shelter and necessary services remains small. Study after study shows the costs are far less to get people on their feet than paying for long-term costs of health care in emergency rooms or providing services through the criminal justice system. Few areas of social policy in which government, business and the nonprofit community work together are more cost-effective. Organizations such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Service frequently join government agencies to stretch public and private resources. Government can't do it alone. But neither can we.

We aren't policy experts. But our organizations combined have spent nearly 300 years helping people meet their basic needs of food, shelter and health care. We know what works.

Even if the 2009 budget preserves programs that serve our most vulnerable neighbors, the systemic lack of investing in people will haunt us until we address not only the root causes of poverty and homelessness but rebuild structures that provide health care, mental health care, housing and social services.

We can no longer patch the Titanic after we've hit an iceberg. No longer can we simply move people into lifeboats. It only prolongs the drowning.

We know state lawmakers face tough decisions. We know services face funding cuts. While we ask that the cuts be equally distributed, we more urgently request that any discussion include long-term strategic thinking. Policy remains the responsibility of lawmakers, but they must hear the voices of the poor. We will gladly meet with lawmakers to talk about creative solutions. We eagerly await their invitations.

The Rev. John Estrem is CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the largest provider of social services in the Twin Cities. He can be reached at Mark Peterson is CEO of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, the largest provider of social services in Minnesota. He can be reached at Pioneer Press