COLUMBUS—It’s morning. We are at the Stewart Community Home homeless shelter. Kara is our tour guide today, she helps run the place.
We begin the grand tour at the reception desk. Here, Christmas decorations have already come out. On the desk there is a colorful plastic mailbox which is labeled: “Santa’s Mailbox.”
“That’s where residents put their Christmas lists,” says Kara. “They pick three things they want from Santa, and we buy them. We have a guy who plays Santa Claus, he’s got the real beard and everything. You should see our Christmases, most fun you’ll ever have.”
I ask what kinds of gifts residents ask Santa for. Kara says they mostly ask for socks, hats, mittens, underwear, or haircuts.
“Last year,” Kara says, “one lady just wanted an arts and crafts set. You know, it’s the little things.”
An elderly black woman shuffles to Santa’s Mailbox and places a letter inside. She does not make eye contact with me. She hurries away before I can talk to her.
I meet a middle-aged woman in a wheelchair. She has one leg. She is parked in the hallway so she can greet passers-by.
“She’s been through hell,” Kara whispers. “First a horrible divorce, then doctors found a blood clot, she lost her leg, lost her job, her money, no family. We found her living in her car with her cat.”
This is just one version of a similar story for most residents here. And you can see this story all over their faces.
An old man in slippers walks the halls accompanied by a tiny dog on a leash. The dog is named Rat Rat.
“Hey, Rat Rat,” says Kara.
The old man says, “Where’re your manners, Rat? Say hello to the young lady.”
We all take turns greeting Rat Rat. Then, the old man lifts the dog into his arms for a kiss. These two have been together for a long time.
He says, “You oughta see Rat Rat watch football with us. In the cafeteria we watch the Falcons play on TV, whenever they score, Rat Rat barks.”
The old man decides to demonstrate.
He shouts, “TOUCHDOWN, RAT RAT! COME ON! LOOK! RAT RAT! TOUCHDOWN!”
But Rat Rat is not in the mood.
“Well,” the man says, “He don’t wanna do it with y’all watching.”
Right now, the home is almost filled to capacity. We meet a host of people in recreation areas. They are watching television, knitting, coloring, reading, or sitting in the courtyards.
“Most of our people have mental illness,” says Kara. “Lotta people don’t realize how debilitating mental illness is. That’s half our battle.”
A young man in a wheelchair is watching a soap opera on TV.
“How’re you today?” Kara asks.
“Oh, I dunno, Miss Kara,” the man says. “I’ve been better.”
“It’s gonna be okay,” says Kara. “We’re gonna get it all figured out. I promise.”
“I wanna see you smile.”
We arrive at the cafeteria. The mess hall is half living room, half dining room. Checkered tablecloths. Flower arrangements. A few sofas positioned before a flat-screen television. A group of older men sit around the TV, enthralled.
“What’re you watchin’?” Kara asks the men.
“Batman,” they say in unison.
A man with no teeth says, “Buh-mun.” Then he smiles at me.
One older man on the sofa is lean, with skin that is tan and rough. Bluish eyes. He points to Kara and says, “This woman saved my life, she rescued me.”
“Oh, hush,” says Kara.
“It’s true,” he goes on. His eyes are getting wet.
Just yesterday, Kara was at the Dollar General buying Christmas lights for the cafeteria. She saw this man begging for food on the sidewalk. It was raining pretty hard, he was soaked. The man asked if she had anything to eat. Kara answered, “I can do better than food. How’d you like to come live with me?”
And that, by God, was that.
They loaded him into her truck, gave him a room, new clothes, and a bed. Last night, he took his first hot shower in months.
He says, “Two nights ago, I slept on a porch. Night before that I was on a sidewalk. Now I’m taking showers and sleeping on a mattress.”
Next on the tour is the kitchen. This is where all the holiday magic happens. The galley is ablaze with smells. A huge spiral ham. Macaroni and cheese. Butterbeans. Greens. Lots of sweet tea. The cooks are standing at stoves, listening to music, bobbing their hips to “Jingle Bell Rock.”
“We serve five meals per day,” says one cook. “Breakfast, late-breakfast snack, lunch, post-lunch snack, and supper.” She laughs. “Lord, all we do is cook, but it’s worth it, these people love to eat.”
Apparently she’s right. Lunch isn’t for another hour, but there is already a line forming outside the door. People are waiting outside the cafeteria in the same way that shoppers wait outside stores on Black Friday.
“They got damn good grub here,” says one old man who is missing an eye.
Kara corrects the man’s language because there is no ugly language used at the Stewart Home.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Miss Kara,” he says, bowing his head. “I just plumb damn forgot.”
After the tour, I leave by way of the reception desk. I pass Santa’s Mailbox again. There is a man striding toward me. He walks with a pronounced limp, he carries a cane. He places a slip of paper into the mailbox slot.
I ask him whether he thinks Santa is going to be generous to him this year.
“Santa?” says the man. “Who needs Santa when we get to live in heaven with real-life angels?”
Well. The man makes a pretty good point.