Michelle Morgan’s eyes flare with suspicion when strangers approach. Her weary voice sounds much older than her 38 years of age.
She knows her tattered, wrinkled clothing, long, stringy blond hair, and awkward social skills are not inviting.
That didn’t stop Toledo city employees and dozens of community volunteers from trying their best to make sure Ms. Morgan and hundreds of other homeless and financially struggling Toledo residents felt welcome Thursday during the city’s annual Thanksgiving meal at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church.
PHOTO GALLERY: 12th Annual Homeless Holiday Luncheon
“They’re very good people here,” said an impressed Ms. Morgan, who has been homeless for several years and looks forward to this annual Thanksgiving luncheon. “We’re not treated like we’re poor or homeless; we’re treated like we’re family.”
Dozens of city employees and church and community volunteers cooked and served a traditional Thanksgiving meal, which included turkey, ham, sweet and mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry, and more. Everyone was encouraged to return for second and third helpings, or as much as their bellies could hold.
Officials said this year’s turnout — which drew 400-500 people — was higher than recent years.
The annual event is organized by the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, with the help of various local organizations, including homeless service providers, food banks, and food kitchens, said Lourdes Santiago, the Department of Neighborhoods director. The luncheon was funded by the city’s Community Development Block Grant and Emergency Solutions Grant programs.
Ms. Morgan, a lifelong Toledo resident, said a severe spine injury and other health problems prevent her from obtaining employment. State and federal budget cuts have eliminated many assistance programs that were once used to help people get back on their feet.
“I go to places like this to eat,” said Ms. Morgan, referring to places that provide free meals or food. “I have to live with other people until they get sick of me and kick me out.”
When those options run out, she often accompanies a small pack of other homeless people who seek shelter and food together. As Ms. Morgan prepared to leave Thursday’s event, she began pouring uneaten biscuits, cookies, slices of ham and turkey into her small purse until it looked like it would burst. Many people in attendance did the same thing, some filling their coat pockets or back packs with as much food as they could grab.
Some volunteers encouraged them to take food items that wouldn’t spoil as quickly.
“We want to make sure that everyone gets a Thanksgiving meal and gets as much as they want,” said Veronica Burkhardt, city housing manager, who’s volunteered at the event for 12 years.
Louis Goings, 51, and Renee Khreis, 37, both of Toledo, have been struggling financially during the past year. The couple admits it’s uncomfortable having to seek free meals and food, but they’re grateful they have that option.
“We’re just happy to have a chance to get a good Thanksgiving meal,” Ms. Khreis said. “The food was good.”
City officials also honored Artheldia Scott, retired neighborhood department director, for initiating the annual luncheon years ago.
“Thanks to her spunk; 16 years ago this event happened,” Ms. Santiago, the current director, said.
This year’s event also introduced many new health-related services and family friendly activities, said Monica Brown, assistant to the director of the city’s neighborhoods department.
New activities included face painting and other activities for children, including a visit from Super Why, a super hero character featured on a popular PBS children’s program broadcast on WGTE-TV, Ms. Brown said.
Mercy St. Charles Hospital provided a mobile health van so people could get free HIV testing. Dinner music was provided by pianist Don Miller, whose day job is income tax auditor for the city.
The Lucas County Sheriff’s Office provided bus transportation so that more than 40 homeless people could attend the luncheon. Hannah’s Socks, a program started by an area girl, provided attendees with new socks for the winter months.
Contact Federico Martinez at: email@example.com or 419-724-6154.