Hundreds of homeless men and women lined up for a special Christmas brunch at the Siena-Francis House homeless shelter Wednesday morning, where they dined with friends or spent a quiet morning in reflection.
“The best part about this meal is the company,” said Doug, who sat at a table with five friends.
Volunteers and shelter staff dished out mounds of food — scrambled eggs, sausage links, doughnuts, French toast sticks and hash browns — and kept the coffee and juice flowing. “Today is my most favorite day of the year,” Michael Connolly said. “I don't have much, but what I am grateful for is God.”
Later, a Korean church would come in to cook dinner, a tradition that's stretched back years, and shelter residents chose gifts like new clothes and toiletries from a giveaway.
Volunteer Harold J. Harris knows all about tradition. Since 1999, save one year, the Bellevue resident and retired Air Force colonel has come to the shelter on Thanksgiving and Christmas to help serve.
“It's very festive, and the part I find most exciting is when the children come in with their presents,” Harris said. “Even though they may only have one or two, they're grateful for that. It brings me and some of the others down to earth.”
That humility has kept Harris coming back to the shelter every holiday.
“It just lets us know we're just a stone's throw away from being here if times get tough,” he said.
Kitchen manager Harold Patsios and assistant manager Guy Jones started breakfast about 5:30 a.m. Patsios, who came to the shelter years ago for help with his alcohol addiction, estimated that they'd serve meals to at least 400 homeless men, women and children.
“I enjoy coming down,” he said. “Everybody seems to be in a better mood than usual, even with all the stresses of being homeless.”
Small gestures — a hot meal, the gift of a clean shirt — can mean the world to someone struggling with addiction or homelessness, he said.
“People sometimes get depressed this time of year, and we try to do whatever we can to help them through that,” he said. “It's important. A kind word, a pat on the back, someone saying you're important — if I can give that back to the community, then that's worthwhile.”
Jones and his fellow staffers were gearing up for a long day, between the breakfast crowd and the hundreds more that would turn up for the traditional Korean dinner.
“But it's good to give back,” said Jones, a resident at the shelter. “This place saved my life.”
While the weather was milder on Wednesday, December's blisteringly cold weather has left many of Omaha's homeless shelters over capacity in recent weeks. Siena-Francis House has 389 beds but has been sleeping close to 500.
“Today, it's kind of relaxing and laid back,” Jones said. “A lot of these guys are happy to not be out in the cold.”