How to Celebrate the Holidays When You're Homeless

It may not be the actual Polar Express, but the construction paper train that adorns Lori Stevenson's door at the Salvation Army Family Residence is good enough. It is, after all, award-winning.

Decorated by her 15-year-old daughter, Lori's door won this year's decorating contest at the homeless shelter, a big accomplishment for the mother-daughter duo. The award is a big deal among the shelter's 75 residents, who -- without individual trees -- decorate their dorm room doors instead.

It's an interesting take on the ornaments and tinsel, but when you're a parent in crisis, you've got to find a way to keep the holiday spirit alive somehow. And that's precisely what these shelter residents are doing.

Whether it's helping their kids "trap" Santa or keeping up old traditions, these folks have found the way to make the best of the holidays. Prepare to be humbled.

Lori Stevenson Bright-eyed and upbeat, Lori Stevenson is hardly the type of person you'd expect to be living in a shelter over the holidays. The single mom of a 15-year-old, Lori had been able to make ends meet her entire life.

Until now, anyway. Lori and her daughter have been living in one room at the Salvation Army family shelter for the last three months or so, and will continue to do so for a few more. This room, with the door decorations and the twin beds, is where they'll also celebrate Christmas.

Lori and her daughter landed in the Salvation Army after the doting mother fell on hard times in her personal life. She's hesitant to tell too much of her back story, but her anxiety around the camera and hesitancy to use her first name -- Lori Stevenson is a pseudonym -- speak volumes of where she's coming from.

As hard as these last three months have been, Lori says life in the shelter is as close to normal as normal can be, at least in this situation.

"It has its challenges," says Stevenson. "But you're not just a number here. They respect you and let you feel like a person."

And knowing that makes things easier, since as a parent, watching your child spend Christmas in the shelter is a pretty heavy thing to process.

"You feel bad enough as it is," says Lori. "Sure, it's bittersweet, being here. But that's not just the holidays."

But as bittersweet as it may feel, you can't let the negative overtake your experience, says Lori, even during the holidays. After all, she's blessed and thankful to be here.

"All I hear about from the other parents, and how I feel too, is that we're blessed and thankful to be able to come here."

Renee Anderson Renee Anderson never expected to be on this side of the fence. In her job at Workforce Solutions, she'd been the one helping people find work and stability. But when the company's contracts with Interfaith Ministries weren't renewed, some job positions had to be cut -- Renee's included -- which led the single woman to the Salvation Army's door.

Renee says she just expected to be able to find more work after the initial blow from her job loss, but month after month of searching left her empty-handed. Money dwindled, and she was left with no other option but the shelter.

She will remain in her shared room at the shelter over the holiday season, and perhaps for some time after, since she's still unemployed. But even in the midst of crisis, those dire circumstances are hardly wearing down Renee's spirit.

"I don't even feel homeless, actually. I feel blessed to be here," says Renee, smiling.

The transition has been surprisingly easy, says Renee, and being in the shelter, although not ideal for the holidays, has taken the burden off her shoulders. She's enjoyed the trips to local churches for their holiday celebrations -- one even sent posh buses to transport them -- and at the church, she and the other residents got to watch the antique trains circle the elaborate decorations.

They took pictures and were given gifts by the church community, too.

Renee says that knowing she can rely on the staff at the Salvation Army means she can focus on finding a job now, which is all she really wants for Christmas anyway. It's safe to start looking again, because this time, she has a home to come back to.

"So, Christmas," Renee says, "I'm ready for it."

Ms. Cline They've only been here about ten days, but Ms. Cline, a full-time student at the University of Houston, is doing her best to make her two kids feel at home in their room at the Salvation Army.

"We're still kinda navigating this," she says. "It's alien for us."

After all, late December is usually a time when the engineering student is done with finals, and would be helping her 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter prepare for their Christmas traditions. But this year she is spending this time worrying instead.

"It's been one of the hardest semesters ever," she says.

Normally a B-average student, Ms. Cline says she may have some explaining to do this semester. But being homeless is new for the young mom, who has, until this point, been able to swing all her responsibilities easily.

But the family suffered a series of financial hits -- including the loss of her husband's job -- that left them needing some help. The three of them wound up in the shelter while her husband looks for work.

The idea of navigating Christmas in the shelter is overwhelming and disconcerting for Ms. Cline, she says, but when it comes to those two kids, they don't really see the difference.

"I'm just trying to keep it as normal as possible for them," she says.

Christmas at the Cline house was always filled with plotting -- the kids are always trying to catch Santa, she says -- and she'd bake pies and cookies while they set those Santa traps.

Baking for the kids is out of the question this year. Their room at the Salvation Army, while more than adequate, doesn't allow for cooking or baking, so the Salvation Army holiday traditions may have to do. The kids can still try to trap Santa, though.

"They're still wanting to catch Santa," she laughs. "They've been trying to for so long."

And hopefully, with a little luck, the family will be able to put things together after the holidays. Her husband has already had an interview this week, she says, and now he's just waiting on some good news.

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Angelica Leicht
Contact: Angelica Leicht