By Robert Lee Payne, VOICE vendor
In 2012, I was staying in shelters here in Denver. My friend Wilhelm, who is now my spouse, and I had camped out in an abandoned church somewhere near 38th and Lawrence with some other people who were homeless too. Around Christmas that year, we were staying sometimes at a friend’s place when we could, other times at Samaritan House, Crossroads, and the Denver Rescue Mission.
There were soup kitchens, and if you were in a program, the shelter had a dining area where everyone could eat. At the shelter we sang songs, went to church services, hung out with friends, and gave gifts to each other as we were able.
I was able to get Wilhelm a pair of shoes. He gave me some bus passes. Other people shared cigarettes and marijuana. Sharing what they had was the only way they could give gifts.
We just did the usual; we tried our best to celebrate any traditions we grew up with. Nobody treated us differently at the shelters; everyone was in the same boat. Some of the people we encountered were broken and depressed, but by then, this was normal.
I felt happy and sad at the same time—sad because I was away from my family, happy because I like the holidays. Wilhelm and I moved to Denver from Virginia, my home state. Wilhelm and I had each other to get through the holidays, so we weren’t completely alone. He helped me deal with missing my family, with memories of playing games, watching movies, and listening to holiday stories.
Wilhelm’s mother lived near Denver, and her Christmas gift to us that year was to invite us to her house for pizza. She didn’t have much money to spend. She was staying in Section 8 housing, so she could have visitors, but they couldn’t stay overnight. Wilhelm’s mother knew we would be in shelters when we arrived in Denver. She told us it would take about two years for us to get housing, and she was right.
I used my cellphone to call my family for Christmas. I called my sisters from inside a day shelter. It was crowded there that day, and I remember it being hard to hear them.
My family knew I was in a shelter, and they were worried that I wouldn’t make it at first. But I was able to send pictures to them, so they knew I was fine.
As I passed by others that day in the shelter, I overheard many similar conversations. Many people were separated from their families and children, and I could see the sadness on their faces. Sometimes this caused me to tear up. We were all together though, with our sadness, and just being together helped relieve some of the emotional pressure we all felt.
When I was growing up, my family would drive around during Christmastime looking at all the decorations in our neighborhood. One year, when I was about eight, my parents took us out for our family drive, and when we arrived back at our house, there was a bag of groceries on our front porch. This was a time when we did not have much money. Not having much was sad, but seeing our neighbors’ generosity made me happy.
The way I was brought up, I did my best to stay optimistic about everything despite whatever sadness I was feeling, or whether or not I had money to spend. Homelessness did not change my views of the holidays, because the holidays were always a mix of happiness and sadness for me. ■