"Don’t give up.”
That was the message Toledo City Mayor Mike Bell delivered to more than 100 homeless men and women who gathered for a Christmas Eve celebration in a downtown Toledo shelter.
The annual event, which was held at the St. Paul Community Center, is an opportunity to spread good cheer among people who otherwise may not have a happy holiday, said Marcia Langenderfer, executive director of the center.
“Some of the people here may have a daily choice to make – shelter or food,” said Ms. Langenderfer. “They won’t have a Christmas. They won’t receive a gift on Christmas Day.”
Many of the people who arrived at the center on 13th Avenue carried small plastic bags filled with all their possessions. Some wore tattered coats and hats -- if they had any winter clothing.
Mr. Bell said he attended the event because he wanted to show support for St. Paul's and let people to know that he cares about all Toledo residents.
His arrival was greeted with applause and cheers of "Merry Christmas" from those gathered at the center. Mr. Bell briefly shook a few hands and waved before departing.
"(Homelessness) isn't just a Toledo thing, it's a national issue," said Mr. Bell. "The economy is starting to bounce back, but it's going to take time."
For the homeless, the center on Monday provided a brief, but welcome respite from the hardships many of them are enduring.
Community volunteers passed out plates filled with sandwiches, a salad, and baked goods. Most of the homeless visitors sat together at large tables. Old acquaintances hugged and shared laughs.
"St. Paul's has helped me as lot," said 54-year-old Guspar Rodriquez, who until recently had been staying at the agency's onsite shelter. "I was homeless. But they helped me get back on my feet."
Mr. Rodriquez stayed at the shelter for three months, which enabled him to save enough so that he could afford his own apartment. They also helped him join an Alcoholics Anonymous group, which has helped him remain sober now for several months.
"Some people look down at you for staying at a shelter," said Mr. Rodriquez. "But, I looked at it as a place that allowed me to get my life back on track and get sober."
St. Paul’s offers a variety of services for Toledo’s homeless, including long- and short-term housing for single adults and families and a community meal program, said Ms. Langenderfer.
Beginning on Monday, the shelter will start its “winter crisis” program, which provides overnight shelter for up to 50 people – on a first-come, first-serve basis. Sleeping cots will be set up nightly in the center’s lunchroom, where the Christmas event was held.
The overnight shelter can only be offered for 47 days this winter because federal funding for the program was cut, said Mr. Langedenderfer.
Despite limited resources, center staff and community volunteers did their best to make sure people’s needs were met. A volunteer discreetly handed one homeless man a new tent so that he would have some place to sleep. A visiting Santa Claus handed everyone a Christmas package filled with a new winter hat, scarf, and gloves.
As he prepared to leave the shelter, Mr. Rodriquez was asked what he would like for Christmas.
“Nobody’s ever asked me that,” he said. “I don’t want anything. I just want to continue doing what I’m doing – stay sober and live life.”
Contact Federico Martinez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154