"As bad as covid has been, it's actually been a blessing for me because it made me reconsider what I was doing in life," said Mora, wearing a floral mask and preparing to drive to Maryland to volunteer at a meal distribution site there. "It's launched me into a whole new world."
For nonprofit operations serving the homeless, the holidays are a time to provide big meals to those who are in need while also offering a few hours of celebration and community. The pandemic has prevented many of the usual traditions, forcing organizations to think creatively about other ways to serve some of society’s most vulnerable.
Central Union Mission, a Christian charity that has served people experiencing homelessness in the nation’s capital for more than a century, had to ditch its usual Thanksgiving meal, which drew about 400 annually to the shelter cafeteria for hot turkey, yams and stuffing.
Instead the shelter set up a meal distribution site in its parking lot, overlooked by a Walmart and a luxury condo building, and handed out Safeway boxes containing a cold turkey sandwich, a cup of potato salad, an apple, a chocolate-chip cookie and a cupcake.
“It’s not in our DNA to turn people away,” said Joe Mettimano, chief executive of Central Union Mission. “We were determined to make sure folks out here on the street weren’t alone feeling like no one cared.”
Other D.C.-area groups have pitched in to feed those in need while isolated because of the coronavirus. The restaurant Medium Rare delivered meals to about 3,000 seniors living alone in the region. The iconic turkey giveaway in Ward 8, the poorest part of Washington, continued.
The Central Union giveaway wasn’t as well-attended as Thanksgiving meals past, which drew some homeless people who said they cared more about the companionship than the food.
About 50 people who did show up pumped hand sanitizer and took a free white mask before volunteers wearing face shields handed them meals and courtesy bags of gloves, hats and more masks and hand sanitizer. Devotional music blasted from a speaker.
A shelter volunteer dancing in the parking lot and shouting “Happy Thanksgiving!” to passersby caught the eye of Oliver, a 62-year-old homeless man who declined to give his last name. He said he was thankful for “anything” to help him survive such a rough year.
“Being homeless in a pandemic? It’s like kicking a person while they are down,” Oliver said.
More than 350 people staying at D.C. homeless shelters have contracted the coronavirus and 21 have died, according to city data. The city has leased several hotels to quarantine shelter residents and other high-risk populations; 100 rooms have been occupied this week.
While other Washingtonians have resumed dining at restaurants, visiting museums and working out at gyms, the roughly 50 residents of Central Union Mission’s shelter have remained under a stay-at-home order since March to prevent an outbreak.
Some chose to return to the streets instead, but others have found it helpful to weather the pandemic with others struggling with homelessness. Weekday meals are now a place for conversation. Sunday football is a time to hang out. Cornhole tournaments bring out the competitive heat.
“We wish we had our family, but we’ve grown as a family unit,” said Jonathan Moncada, a shelter resident who donned a neck gaiter and a face shield to help distribute meals Thursday.
It’s the second Thanksgiving at Central Union for Moncada, a 33-year-old New York native who arrived at the shelter shortly after relocating to D.C. in September 2019.
He said he was living a transient life in New York and hit “rock bottom” during a bitter divorce. Now he said he’s thankful for new friends and shelter staffers who are helping him get back on his feet with encouragement and Christian teachings.
Moncada said he is closer than ever to returning to society and is shifting his focus to finding a job. Eventually, he longs to reunite with four daughters, ranging from age 9 to 14.
“Next Thanksgiving, I hope to see my children and kiss my mother,” Moncada said. “But the spirit of Thanksgiving should be carried every day. Be grateful for the little things, because especially with this pandemic, it shows things can change from one day to the next unexpectedly. It’s an eye-opener.”
Others living transient lives could count on the holidays to reunite with family. But many families canceled large gatherings, with public health authorities warning that a Thanksgiving meal with different households mingling, laughing and shouting indoors is a prime vector for transmission.
Laura Wooldridge, who lives out of a camper, said she normally celebrates Thanksgiving at her mother’s house in North Carolina or with extended family in Georgia.
Her relatives have opted for small meals this year, leaving Wooldridge to stay in the District and eat with Central Union — while gaining a newfound appreciation for the time she does get with family.
“There are so many Thanksgivings we complained about and moaned about,” Wooldridge, 55, said while eating at a courtyard table near the shelter. “What do I have gratitude for this year? I don’t know. It’s hard this year. Last year I could have had an honest answer. This year I don’t.”
Brandon Johnson, 30, struck a more upbeat note as he spread packaged cranberry sauce and mustard on the slices of bread on his sandwich.
“I’m just lucky to be out here on Thanksgiving, because someone just offered me a free meal and it seems like a Thanksgiving meal to me,” said Johnson, 30.
He held out hope that his grandmother might allow him to eat leftovers on the porch of her Northeast Washington home. And more ambitiously, maybe he would have his own home next Thanksgiving to cook whatever he would like.
But a year feels like a lifetime these days. In the meantime, Johnson fixated on the orange-frosted cupcake that came as dessert in his boxed Thanksgiving meal.
“I’m already good,” Johnson said, eyeing the cupcake with a grin. “But I might be really good.”