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27 Nov 2013
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 mid1980s, 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, socialservice 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 havenots

"The holidays accentuate the difference between the haves and havenots," 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 TriCity 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 cookiedecorating and facepainting. 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 11yearold 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 sixyearold Angel Child toy giveaway. Participating groups "adopt" some 300 homeless and lowincome 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 SpencerDavies, associate director. "Some people want to buy a gift for a child who is the same ethnic background as they are."One fifthgrade teacher makes this a class project by "adopting" 10 children. "It's a school where a lot of the children are really welloff," says Ms. SpencerDavies. "The teacher wanted them to connect with a program that would help them realize that not all children are as fortunate."


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