'Twas the night before Christmas, and at the Department of Health and Human Services there was barbecued chicken and ham and eggnog and dancing and laughter.
A record crowd of more than 1,000 homeless men and women piled their plates with food and filed into rows of folding chairs at the fifth annual Christmas Eve dinner sponsored by the Community for Creative Non-Violence.
Until this year, the dinners were held at the Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church, and drew between 400 and 500 people, said CCNV head Mitch Snyder. But advertisements for a variety show produced by the One Star Theatre Corp., which was to serve as entertainment at the dinner, prompted hundreds of inquiries about the event, Snyder said, and it became clear the church wouldn't be big enough.
Although a request one year in advance is usually required to use the HHS building, it took only a few days to set up the dinner, said Carol Fennelly of CCNV.
HHS Secretary Margaret Heckler spoke briefly, reminding the group "of what this night really means. Remember that Christ Himself was born in a stable because there was no room at the inn."
While there is still no room in shelters for many of the nation's homeless, their plight is finding its way into many people's consciousness, Snyder said. "Folks have been hiding in the woodwork. But we're beginning to acknowledge that the homeless exist -- tentatively and slowly," he said.
The doors didn't open for dinner until 5 yesterday evening, but clusters of people began to press near the building's glass entrance half an hour before. Others crouched on the plaza steps, silhouettes bent over bags and backpacks against a darkening sky.
The crowds thickened and drew closer as CCNV volunteers unloaded food from a truck, passing platters of chickens, trays of pumpkin pies and cartons of doughnuts hand-over-hand into the building.
George Lamont, 40, said he used to be a plumber but has not worked for two years. "Before CCNV , if a dude couldn't make it on the street, a dude didn't make it. A lot of dudes died," he said. Lamont said he came last night "because I didn't have anything else to do."
Inside, the crowd inched through two serving lines, with plates with food and cups of eggnog and apple juice. The entire dinner was donated, said Fennelly. Gates & Sons Bar-B-Q gave ten gallons of barbecue sauce. One woman offered 40 gallons of eggnog; another gave 450 pounds of chicken.
Ivery Williams, 36, still bundled in a brown furry hat and a blue jacket, paused between bites of ham. "I've got chicken and ham and string beans and potatoes and apple sauce and potato salad, and I'm going to gain about three pounds before I leave," he said.
One couple, who did not want to give their names, bought 125 long-stemmed red roses and offered one to each woman in the crowd. "We didn't know how long it had been since they were handed a flower," said the woman who bought them. "It's just our little way of saying that they haven't been forgotten," her husband said.
Sheneise Johnson, 6, said she had never been given a rose before, and stuck the flower in her father's direction so he could sniff it. "It's a nice outing," said James Johnson, 28. "All the people come together and have a nice time. I think that's great."
Snyder offered thanks to the dozens of volunteers who helped plan the dinner, "the people who opened up their refrigerators and their pocketbooks . . . and their hearts and their minds."
"People have begun to understand that we exist," he said. "Doors are beginning to be opened."
The crowds out front had dwindled to just a few. Several people left the lobby, wool hats tugged down over their ears and jackets zipped to the chin, and wandered out into the dark.