The volunteers descended on Franklin Park in downtown Washington in droves on Christmas morning, with Santa hats and name tags and aspirations of connecting with the homeless whom they had come to serve.
Among them were people like Arvell Trapps, 55, who is all too familiar with the thin line between stability and falling apart,
At 11 a.m., Trapps was handing out coats and toiletry kits in plastic bags to the homeless men and women who congregate in the park. By 3 p.m. he’d be celebrating Christmas with some of the relatives whose homes he’d drifted in and out of for decades during his own struggles with drugs, prison and homelessness. After that, he was headed for a gathering with people in recovery from drug addiction, just like him.
Asked what brought him to Franklin Park on Christmas, the slight, soft-spoken man with the tired eyes could only speak one sentence before the tears came.
“But for the grace of God,” he said.
Christmas in a place like Franklin Park showcases life’s extremes, with some people shoving one another in line for food or clothes while gospel music booms from speakers and people in glittery sweaters dance and sing and praise God.
The park itself is on the edge. At the start of Washington’s economic boom, the historic former Franklin School building on its eastern edge served as a homeless shelter, smack in the middle of developers’ revival dreams.
The shelter closed in 2008, but the park remained a magnet for the homeless, who find relative safety in the bustle of white-collar types coming in and out of the high rises and appreciate the sustenance provided by volunteers and nonprofit groups.
Now there are plans for the park’s “revival,” with a splash area for children, a farmers market, yoga classes and movie nights to draw some of the growing population of high-earning residents in the city’s core.
For the moment, Phillip Golden is the self-declared “mayor of the park.” On Friday, the 50-year-old watched over a long bench loaded with clothes, toiletries, bags and food in plastic, including cheese danishes, all procured that day.
He and a group of regulars who spend their days in the park said they appreciate the bounty of Christmas, when many volunteers come.
As he spoke, his fiancee was folding a new-looking pair of designer jeans in his size, with colorful embroidered pockets.
For those volunteers, like Trapps, who have stumbled in their own lives, the rules of Christmas morning are clear.
“We wouldn’t give no clothes we wouldn’t wear ourselves, or feed people something we wouldn’t eat ourselves,” Trapps said of the Widow’s Pantry, the nonprofit group with which he volunteers. The group was started by a woman who had struggled financially herself.
“Everyone here is the same,” Trapps said, looking out at the crowds and recognizing plenty of people from his past. “You can’t come from a park bench to Park Avenue.”
Standing behind tables heaped with giveaway coats was Margaret Doles, an administrative assistant in Silver Spring whose brother has battled homelessness.
She comes to the park once a month to hand out food or clothing. When people approach her table, she thinks of her brother, who is older than she and likes to tell his little sister he doesn’t need her to tell him what to do. She seeks to be respectful.
“We’ll ask what their size or style is. We’ll say, ‘Are you looking for anything in particular?’ ” she said. “We want it to be the way it is when you go to the Gap.”
On the southern edge of the square, Sakeenah Palmer doled out helpings of her mother’s turkey, cabbage and cranberry sauce.
The 36-year-old mother of two said she was trying to give the girls in her Young Divas hip-hop dance troupe perspective.
The group (also called YD4L, or Young Divas for Life), came together last year and often scrapes to find money for things like uniforms.
“I’m trying to teach them that we are struggling but others are more. I told them, ‘To get a blessing, you have to give a blessing,’ ” said Palmer, wearing a furry Santa hat in the 70-degree weather. “They thought there was no such thing as homelessness in the nation’s capital.”
Palmer works part time at Wendy’s. Growing up, her mother and grandmother always opened their homes on the holidays for people who needed meals. Her rules for the girls in the park Friday: Stay in pairs. And don’t judge anyone on how they smell or how they look.
As the tinfoil pans were emptying, Palmer’s dancers were saying they couldn’t wait to come back on Valentine’s Day. A few were skipping around looking for Mr. Robert, a park regular they’d met on Thanksgiving. They’d brought his special requests: hand sanitizer and long johns.
But before they could find him, the rain came pouring down. And the homeless people headed for the awnings and entryways of nearby office towers, while the Christmas volunteers hurried to their cars and returned home.