December 2023 blog

Christmas at Safe Harbor

From tears of pain to tears of laughter as we offer a caring ear


By Brad Gerlach

Volunteer Manager

As we approach the heart of the holiday season, social media platforms portray warm Christmas scenes.  For many of us, Christmas represents a time of family, of coming together and celebrating at home.  Not surprisingly, this time of year can be hard for some of the guests at the shelter and requires us to maintain a difficult balancing act.


The other night I sat down with two of our longtime guests.  As our conversation wandered, we edged over to discussing Christmas.  D shared his story which carries a deep Christmas sadness.  His mom died unexpectedly at Christmas, shortly after D turned 16.  D’s older step-siblings took over the house, making it clear he was not welcome.  He lived a winter in the garage and then resorted to couch surfing, feeling totally abandoned and alone. Ultimately he ended up with a crew who had housing for him, but also introduced him to drugs.  That addiction has become a lifelong battle and Christmas serves as a quiet reminder of his slide into homelessness.


C’s Christmas story comes with acute pain, one that I especially feel as a father of three daughters.  C and his daughter had a very close relationship and had developed a number of Christmas traditions.  Unfortunately C made some “really bad decisions” as he called them and ended up incarcerated.  In that period, other people began turning his daughter against him.  They did have contact after his release and he was able to visit with her several times, but her heart continued to harden; eventually she broke all contact with him.  Among his many holiday triggers is hearing Frosty the Snowman since that was his daughter’s favorite Christmas song.


So yes, we do recognize Christmas at the shelter.  There are sometimes holiday games and arts and crafts.  We do have a Christmas tree and many treats and gifts flow in from our church partners and the public at large.  But we are careful with the gifts in particular, ensuring there are enough for everyone and that nothing included might be a trigger. The yurt and sleeping areas remained unadorned for those who wish to get away from the holidays.  We pay careful attention to guests who may be carrying especially heavy Christmas burdens, offering a caring ear.


Even for those who have suffered holiday trauma, not all is bleak.  D pointed out that there are worse places to spend Christmas and that those in the shelter were as close to family as he was going to get.  C responded with his customary “yeah, a big dysfunctional family.”  Our conversation took an unexpected turn, as we debated the merits of making a reality TV show based on life at the shelter and who the stars of that show might be.  Tears of pain ten minutes earlier turned to tears of laughter.  D, as he does in many of our conversations, closed with a heartfelt “thank you” as he looked around the room and acknowledged all the volunteers and staff engaging with guests. “If nothing else,” he said, “at least we know you all care.”