Santa's Mixed Bag
by Sterling Cunio
In a Christmas Eve winter storm covering Salem in ice and freezing temperatures, I slid across the hockey rink parking lot at Village of Hope in a Santa Clause outfit trying to avoid face plants. Assuring myself that the real Santa would never take off a snow day, I reach the gate to deliver home baked cookies to the residents at the micro-shelter community operated by Church at the Park for our city’s homeless population. There are forty micro-shelters at VOH, each shared by two people who would otherwise be on the streets this Christmas.
Entering into the common area, I see a group of people huddled around the heater having coffee while heavily engaged in conversation and, in that moment, I’m reminded one of the best things found at VOH is the sense of community created among and for our guests. I’m warmed on this cold day by the thought of April, James, Dawn, Trenton, Heather, and others having a shelter in the storm and companionship on Christmas with gifts generously donated from around the city.
For over a month, C@P has been collecting everything from shoes and socks, sweaters, stockings stuffed with treats, and perhaps most importantly toys for the kids housed at the children and family micro-shelter site located at Catholic Community Services where earlier this morning I dawned the Santa outfit and visited the Christmas party to spread holiday cheer.
Along with three trailers full of gifts, games of musical chairs, chase with Santa, food and more, there was an abundance of heartfelt gratitude expressed by parents of the kids running around with gleeful squeals and debates about whether or not I was the real Santa.
After leaving the kids’ Christmas party and on my drive to VOH, my own holiday joy was at an all-time high, whereas the context in which my Santa-ing occurred is one of difficulty and crisis, the love and empathy shared that day as part of C@P’s efforts to celebrate with the most vulnerable reminded me that even in the darkest of moments we can still be lights. An after-effect of an afternoon filled with the sounds of children’s Christmas laughter reinforced an optimism that kindness can make a difference everywhere. It was in an altruistic euphoria experienced from serving others, that I slipped and slid into VOH and met the people I knew sitting around the heater drinking their coffee.
“Ho, ho, ho---merry Christmas” I shout while approaching the group. Fully expecting the witty and affectionate banter that’s become a part of my rapport with the guests, but instead, I’m met with somber looks instantly signaling something is wrong.
“What’s going on?” I ask aloud
Penny, a guest I know mostly for her humor and perceptiveness says, “Our friend died.”
Her name was Kristine and two days prior she came to Village of Hope in a medical condition that we are unable to provide the level of care she needed. We arranged for EMS to come out for her, while lining up alternative placement in a shelter that could tend to her needs but could not allow her husband or their dog. Choosing not to split up, they elected to camp on the streets where Kristine was found dead on Christmas Eve. The news spread throughout the site and in the group’s grief I grieved with them while struggling to tap back into that sense of optimism that engulfed me merely hours earlier. How, I inwardly wondered, could it be that even after people from all across the city pulled together to provide a Christmas to those most in need could poor people be freezing in our streets?
As the guest continued to talk and share their stories of the experience, I began realizing that even in this tragedy the group had a place to grieve and people to do it with, that Kristine’s life did not go unnoticed and whereas it is beyond our current capacity to prevent all the woes of poverty, we are changing the lives of many through creating places of care and community.
Realizing with more capacity we can do more, I promised the guest to talk about their friend when sharing stories of our work and left that night determined to work a little harder, to give a little more of myself to the vision of a city of peace where none go without shelter. Whereas one could easily delve into critiques of social systems and inequalities in search of answers or places to lay blame, I left with a heart mixed with sorrow for Kristine and joy for the kids and found a degree of comfort in reminding myself of all we do to bring about greater equality and empathy to our city. Although our mission to feed, shelter and care for our houseless neighbors is still not complete, we have made significant strides and are gaining momentum as the housed residents of our city become more invested in helping those most in need.
Frequently in this line of work we hear that we can’t save everybody, yet, we at C@P reject that premise and actively seek to make room for everybody at the table and believe we can. Perhaps we can do it without a Santa, but we certainly can’t do it without the care of our communities and the continued support of so many already invested in the vision. This story of cheer spread through donations, volunteers and generous giving contrasted by the loss of Kristine holds the recognition of continued need as we enter into the new year while simultaneously highlighting the power of community to make a difference, in hopes more will join us in recognizing and uplifting the humanity of the homeless.