Christmas Eve in a Homeless Shelter

The following story is from my book “A Homeless Christmas Story”
To see the illustrated version and hear it read by Actor Emilio Estevez, go to
(if the URL doesn’t work, type it into your browser)

Winter’s crisp darkness settled over the large, brick homeless shelter.

Chicago winds whooshed snow across a frozen parking lot.

Christmas Eves at homeless shelters are not very different from other nights.

Volunteers from a local church carried trays of steaming spaghetti inside. A hundred hungry women, children and men dressed in tattered coats stood around outside, waiting for the shelter to open for dinner.

Nearby, a lone man shuffled toward the shelter slowly— carefully—over an icy sidewalk. His massive boots made a soft crunching sound on frozen salt crystals.

The man’s coat and hat—while heavy—were unable to block the biting chill of this cold winter night.

At least his long, tangled beard kept his face warm. People often stared at his beard and clothing. It had taken time, but he had grown used to people staring. In fact, he barely even noticed anymore.

When the man reached the shelter, he dropped a black garbage bag in the snow. No one noticed. A man carrying a garbage bag of belongings is a common sight at a homeless shelter.

A woman in a coat four sizes too large smiled at the man and offered a broken candy cane. He politely declined, rubbing his hands together to keep warm.

Finally, the door to the shelter opened and everyone formed a line to go inside. The line moved like molasses. Some people had lost their shelter ID cards. Others paused for a weary staff member to wave a metal detector at their overstuffed pockets.

The man with the heavy coat and long beard waited patiently. When it was his turn, the staff member greeted him by name and welcomed him in with a tired smile and sincere “Merry Christmas.”

The man heaved his heavy, drained body into the warmth. His thick boots tracked dirty snow inside. Fluorescent lights buzzed overhead, casting harsh light onto rows of tables stuffed into the room. Different smells—some pleasant, others not—filled the air. Sugary, buttery cookies and strong, black coffee were the strongest.

A volunteer approached the man. The woman was elderly, thin, and wore a sweater with a reindeer on it. She greeted him with a tray of drinks in Styrofoam cups: decaf coffee or orange Kool-Aid. The man picked up a cup of coffee and took a sip. It was too strong, bitter and hot, but instantly he felt warmer as the rich dark coffee warmed him from the inside.

The man nodded to people he knew. This was not his first night at a shelter. He had been coming for years… many years… far too many years.

He vividly remembered last Christmas Eve here. And the year before… and the year before that, and…

The person in charge of the shelter spotted the man from across the room and hurried over. She knew that whenever he showed up, chaos always followed. By getting to him quickly, she hoped to prevent any problems this time.

The woman motioned the man toward a separate room, away from everyone else. The man picked up his garbage bag and followed without complaint. He knew the drill.

In an empty room, she had him sit in a single red chair—that was missing some of the stuffing— before she left to attend to other matters.

Even though he was inside, the man didn’t take off his coat or hat. This is not uncommon in places where people own only one winter coat and cannot afford to lose it.

A few minutes passed in gloomy silence.

A young girl—about five years old, with curly dark hair and brown eyes—wandered into the room by herself. She was eating a cookie shaped like a Christmas tree decorated with thick green frosting.

The man looked up at the little girl, expecting to see fear in her eyes. Children were often afraid of him. Children living in homeless shelters, though, grow comfortable around strangers because of the thousands of volunteers.

The little girl—green frosting squishing between her fingers—walked right up to the man. She noticed that he had a sorrowful look on his face. As much time as he had spent in homeless shelters, seeing children living in them still made him sad.

It was clear to the girl that the man was trying to hide his feelings from everyone.
She understood what that was like.

A boisterous commotion broke out in the hallway behind the girl, but she didn’t notice. Shelters are noisy places. It moved closer, but the little girl just stood there. Suddenly, a dozen young children tumbled into the room, trailed by an overwhelmed staff person.

The children froze when they saw the man, their eyes wide.

He sat up straight…

took a deep breath…

and yelled at them…

“Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!”

The little brown-haired girl crawled onto the man’s lap. Presents wrapped in shimmering paper with colorful bows spilled from the garbage bag. The other children giggled, scrambling to form a line.

Looking up at the man, the little girl asked, “What do YOU want for Christmas?”

He was silent. He imagined a world without homelessness. A world without shelters. A world where every child—every person—has a home.

A smile slowly spread across the little girl’s face as she understood.

“Me too. That’s what I want too, Santa.”

To see the illustrated version of this story and hear it read by Actor Emilio Estevez, go to
(if the URL doesn’t work, type it into your browser)



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