Shelter Festivities Bring Holiday Smiles to Children

Volunteers reach out to help homeless families with gifts and celebrations

Like most seven-year-olds, Shauna Smith dreams of the toys she hopes to find under the Christmas tree. Ask what's on her wish list and the little girl says softly, "I'd like Pretty Crazy Curls - the doll that you curl her hair; a Nano -baby virtual reality pet; and sand art."

But unlike most children, Shauna may be dependent on the kindness of strangers for some of her gifts. Since February she and her mother, Rena, have been living in a shelter for homeless families, waiting to find an apartment that Ms. Smith can afford on the modest wages she earns stocking shelves at Caldor's in Malden, Mass.

"All I want for Christmas is good news," says Smith. "I want housing."

That poignant plea echoes across the country this holiday season as the ranks of homeless families grow. Last year, 38 percent of homeless Americans were families, up from 23 percent in the mid-1980s, according to Mary Ann Gleason, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington. Children account for 27 percent of the homeless.

To make the holidays brighter for these displaced families, shelters, social-service agencies, churches, and civic groups are hosting a variety of activities. Through parties and gifts, stockings and trees, the message they are conveying to shelter residents is this: You are not forgotten.

Haves and have-nots

"The holidays accentuate the difference between the haves and have-nots," says Diane Nilan, president of the Illinois Coalition to End Homelessness. "We want to ease the pain of homelessness. We try to celebrate the true meaning of the holiday, whether it's Christmas or Kwanzaa."

For Shauna and her mother, the holidays began on a December Saturday at a party given by the Tri-City Housing Task Force for Homeless Families in Malden. In a church hall filled with strollers, diaper bags, and balloons, they joined 170 homeless and formerly homeless parents and children for cookie-decorating and face-painting. Local restaurants donated lunch, and a juggler made children's eyes dance.

This Friday, a party at Welcome House of Northern Kentucky in Covington will feature snacks and stockings made by members of a local church. Former residents of the shelter will also attend.

On Christmas Eve in Aurora, Ill., Ms. Nilan will hold two parties for homeless families at two shelters. After what Nilan calls "the Santa Claus stuff," staff members at one shelter will invite families to a Christmas prayer service.

"We don't force anyone to attend," says Nilan, the program director. "People sit around in a circle and light candles. One year a woman told the Christmas story. It's amazing how touched people were."

Another time a minister read from the Bible, then asked participants to share their favorite holiday memories. One 11-year-old girl raised her hand and said, "This is the best Christmas I've ever had." Says Nilan, "Tears were rolling down my cheeks. Things like this are a great reality check for people who have lost the true meaning of Christmas."

In San Francisco, the Bay Area Women's and Children's Center takes a different approach with its six-year-old Angel Child toy giveaway. Participating groups "adopt" some 300 homeless and low-income children for the holidays, buying them gifts they specifically want. Sponsors this year range from businesses, churches, schools, and law firms to neighborhood police, Channels 5 and 7, and the Hilton Hotel.

"We fill out a card for each child with the first name, age, ethnic background, and what toy they want," explains Jacky Spencer-Davies, associate director. "Some people want to buy a gift for a child who is the same ethnic background as they are."

Children helping children

One fifth-grade teacher makes this a class project by "adopting" 10 children. "It's a school where a lot of the children are really well-off," says Ms. Spencer-Davies. "The teacher wanted them to connect with a program that would help them realize that not all children are as fortunate."

Two days ago, 15 middle-school members of a Kids Care Club in New Canaan, Conn., hosted a Christmas party for children at a shelter in nearby Norwalk. After decorating cookies and trimming a tree, club members took Polaroids of each child. Then they helped the children frame the pictures as gifts to their parents.

"Anything we can do that helps these children feel like they have the ability to do things other kids are doing, we get excited about that," says Deborah Spaide of New Canaan, founder of the Kids Care Clubs.

Yet even the best parties and gifts can ease burdens only temporarily. Many factors precipitate the loss of a permanent address. Marriages break up. Apartments burn down. Jobs end or day-care slots never materialize. Some landlords will not accept families with children. Others engage in racial discrimination.

Smith's problems began just before Christmas last year, when her apartment in New Hampshire was vandalized twice. Concerned about safety, she and Shauna returned to Massachusetts. But help from relatives was not enough.

"If I could get subsidized housing or some kind of help with housing, I think I would be able to get on my feet," says Smith. "It's frustrating to be on every subsidized-housing list across the state. So far I haven't had any offers."

Sandy Seward, another mother attending the Malden party, discovered what she calls the "stigma" of homelessness when she and her husband, Brian, were evicted in September for being in arrears on rent. They have lived in a shelter since Oct. 17 with their 21-month-old son, Patrick. Mr. Seward works at a delicatessen, earning slightly more than minimum wage.

"If you tell somebody you're homeless, they think you're not working, you're not helping yourself," Mrs. Seward says. "But my husband was working, and I was taking care of home and family. It was just a matter that there's not enough money coming in and not enough affordable housing."

In Malden, a working-class community north of Boston, a two-bedroom apartment can cost $800, says Nancy Cooper, executive director of the Tri-City Housing Task Force for Homeless Families.

Ms. Gleason offers a further explanation. "The irony is that when we experience a strong economy in the United States, that is exactly the time when it's hardest on the lowest-income people," she says. "The cost of housing soars." She notes that this year's federal budget includes no additional subsidized housing.

Yet whatever a family's situation, those who work with them often find impressive resilience among children and parents alike, even during the holidays.

Smith offers an example. "My parents just brought us a tree," she says. "It's a little bare, but Shauna thinks it's better than nothing. She has a great attitude."

Emphasizing the ties that unite parents of all circumstances, Beth Merrill, a coordinator at Welcome House adds, "They're typical families in some ways. They want the best for their kids."

How to Lend a Hand to Families in Need

ere are ways you can help homeless families during the holidays:

* Contribute money to a homeless shelter or agency. Staff can buy specific gifts that families want.

* Give gift certificates for new shoes, or join forces with co-workers and each give a $20 gift certificate. Children and parents can then pick out the right size and style, "Parents say, 'It would be wonderful to pick out new shoes for my child, instead of using some that somebody else picked out.' " says Mary Ann Gleason, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

* Donate new socks, underwear, and pajamas. "Children get tons of mittens and hats," says Deborah Spaide of New Canaan, Conn. "But for every pair of mittens, they need seven pairs of socks. Often they have shoes with big holes in them, and their socks get wet all the time."

* Contribute healthy snacks and juice boxes. Children in shelters often have their evening meal at 4:30 or 5 p.m. and are hungry at bedtime. They need low-sugar snacks.

* Give new household supplies to transitional housing units for families who will soon be moving into their own apartments.

* Don't give used clothing or toys during the holidays.

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