They set their forks filled with hot mashed potatoes back on their plates to greet a friend merging through the volunteers and dinner guests.
“Great,” answered the tall man, smiling in nice casual men’s wear.
The diners introduced their friend to me when he reached the table. I told the tall man I was interviewing some of the more than 1,200 people at the San Diego Rescue Mission (SDRM) dinner on that Dec. 22 about their experiences living on the streets and at the mission.
The three men immediately began to describe the days and nights they had spent living under bridges. The tall man told about how he came to live at SDRM after learning about the new resident process and how the sign-up time for the program was Mondays at 9 a.m. He encouraged his two friends, who were still living on the streets, to look into the mission’s programs.
He briefly explained his daily routine and how SDRM helps the homeless become self-sufficient, productive citizens. The other two men looked hopeful as they spoke of their complicated circumstances and took the SDRM brochures offered at the table. After their friend said goodbye, they both agreed they were very happy they had been invited to the meal that day.
According to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), five states accounted for nearly half of the nation’s total homeless population in 2012: California (20.7 percent), New York (11.0 percent), Florida (8.7 percent), Texas (5.4 percent) and Georgia (3.2 percent). The report, titled “The 2012 Point-in-Time Estimates of Homeless,” names San Diego as having some of the highest counts of the listed situational homeless populations in the United States.
The SDRM feeds hundreds of homeless through its daily programs. Much like its yearly Easter and Thanksgiving feasts, the Christmas Dinner event began at 8 a.m., when about 135 volunteers met at the mission to receive instructions for walking through San Diego’s streets to invite the city’s homeless to the afternoon celebration. Most accepted the invitations and some had already been invited on a previous day. By 11 a.m., the line for dinner had already started to form on the sidewalk next to the mission.
At 2 p.m., a live band played festive music in the dining hall where SDRM president and CEO Herb Johnson was on hand, along with volunteer coordinator Deborah Krakauer and more than 85 volunteers, to offer hearty welcomes to the men, women and children. About 250 guests were served meals at a time. They enjoyed the holiday atmosphere and delicious desserts, and then thanked everyone sincerely as they walked back out the door holding new gifts, including stuffed teddy bears, little books and toiletries.
During the event, some volunteers decided to give the SDRM leaders personal donations to help support the abundant needs and the caring leadership they were witnessing.
“People send $15, $20 or $25 checks on a regular basis because they appreciate the work we do,” said vice president of development Greg Helton.
The mission’s programs also extend to those who need a place to stay while recovering from an illness or injury.
“We have a recuperative-care program so if, for instance, a patient without a home has a broken leg he can recover from it here with bedding changes, meals and clean laundry,” said David Seider, a member of the mission’s board of directors. “We have a great partnership with the hospitals.”
A faith-based organization, SDRM gives residents the opportunity to attend chapel twice a day and have additional time to read the Bible — a feature many residents lauded that day.
“The Mission saved my life,” said a woman who was helping with the event, followed by “Thank God for the Mission,” coming from a male resident.
One resident spoke of the strength SDRM has given him to help himself.
“For someone to believe in you, you have to believe in yourself,” he said. “They don’t put pressure on you. They help you to strive for what you want in life here.”
The words “with dignity” were spoken throughout the day. SDRM leaders used the words “with dignity” describing how to treat people in all types of situations, and the homeless were thankful for being treated “with dignity,” especially in their toughest times.
SDRM helps homeless men, women and children rehabilitate by providing shelter, meals, physical, spiritual, emotional, medical and clothing needs through its many programs. It also helps with substance-abuse recovery, parenting training, money management, vocational training, employment preparation and yearlong in-house programs. The organization’s history began in 1954, and has been producing life-changing success stories ever since.
“Once we have significant donations to help pay off the property, we can concentrate on helping even more people,” said Helton.
For client success videos, program information, volunteer needs and ways to partner or donate, visit sdrescue.org or call (619) 687-3720 or (888) 737-3728. The mission is located at 120 Elm St. Donations can be mailed to San Diego Rescue Mission, P.O. Box 80427, San Diego, 92138. The SDRM is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization qualified to receive tax-deductible donations.