Archive for Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmastime at the shelter

Christmas still exists for those without a home

Christopher Cotymaier stands at the counter at the Lawrence Community Shelter.

Christopher Cotymaier stands at the counter at the Lawrence Community Shelter.

December 24, 2009


Raleigh Worthington amid his belongings.

Raleigh Worthington amid his belongings.

Being homeless generally doesn't get to Raleigh Worthington.

He's a positive guy, especially when it comes to the Lawrence Community Shelter.

"There's not a hungry person in this building. There's not a person here without clothes. There's not a person here without a place to stay at night," Worthington says.

"It doesn't matter that I sleep on a mat every night, or the guy next to me is having some gas problems ... or this guy over here's snoring too loud. That's trivial stuff, compared to the fact that I need a place to stay."

But as his sixth Christmas at the shelter approaches, he admits it's hard to stay positive.

"All of a sudden on that day it seems like it all comes down at once, as to where you'd like to be versus where you are ... not being with family, not being with close friends," he says.

While much of the rest of Lawrence is abuzz with holiday energy, it's a challenging time to keep the shelter upbeat, says the shelter's manager, Diane Huggins.

"Christmas is sold as a time for families, and for many, many, many people here there are no families,' Huggins says.

"So we just try to make it as close to home and happiness as we can," she says.

Audio Clips
Christmastime at the shelter

There's a Christmas tree up in the hallway. Christmas music on the radio. Christmas lights, garland, homemade decorations and greeting cards up on the walls. Cookies and cakes brought in most days by volunteers.

And today the shelter hosts its main Christmas party. The 76 guests eat a big breakfast — egg casserole, sausage and bacon, fruit and cinnamon rolls — and then open gifts from their secret Santa.

Everybody can ask for up to three items, each under $25, and local churches and individuals sign up to make sure everyone on the list gets something they'd like.

"People ask for anything from warm gloves to backpacks — it's all real practical stuff. Nothing exotic," Huggins says. That goes for even the lists from the families at the shelter, she says.

"But with the families, the people who have been buying gifts will get the practical stuff — the blankets and things like that — and then they'll also get some toys for the kids," Huggins says.

Joseph McKinley Williams Sr. with his 4-year-old granddaugther, Keyonna Renee.

Joseph McKinley Williams Sr. with his 4-year-old granddaugther, Keyonna Renee.

First Christmas with kids

After the Salvation Army closed this year, the Lawrence Community Shelter started taking in families. Currently they have five: two with two kids, and three with one kid, says director Loring Henderson.

"That's a whole new twist for us to have them here any time, but particularly Christmas time," Henderson says.

One of them is Joseph McKinley Williams Sr. and his 4-year-old granddaughter, Keyonna Renee.

"She's just a totally adorable, precious, smart little girl who's kind of got everybody around here entranced," Henderson says.

It's not long before she comes marching through the doors, headed for the staircase.

"Down, down, down the stairs!" she sings over and over again. Her grandfather starts to keep her quiet, but Raleigh Worthington steps in.

"She's OK, she's OK! Come on in the house, girl," Worthing says. "Yes, indeed."

"I think we should have had families here sooner," he says. "Because families bring that family atmosphere, and it can be somewhat contagious to the rest of us. Kids bring everyone back to a sense of real reality, because they don't have that mentality of problems, stress, worry and all that stuff."

Williams and his granddaughter came to the shelter in October. At 53, it's the first time he's ever been homeless. He was evicted from his apartment in Lawrence when his landlord found out that he still had two extra people living with him, despite him telling Williams that they had to leave.

"I was helping my son and girlfriend because they didn't have a place to live. They weren't supposed to be in my apartment with me and (Keyonna), but I was trying to give them a hand so they could get on their feet," Williams says.

Now, he's just grateful to have a place to live, while he works to find an apartment — no easy task despite having disability income for rent.

"You're praying someone accepts," he says. "Once you get an eviction on your record, it makes it hard to get an apartment where you'd want to be at. I'm glad we had a place our family could go, and not have to be out on the streets. I'm just grateful for this place."

For her part, Keyonna's too busy playing with the other kids to be worried about being homeless, Williams says.

"She's said, 'We're not gonna have no house this year, but we're still gonna have Christmas. Christmas gonna come either way.' Kid has a big vocabulary!" he says.

Christopher Cotymaier at the Lawrence Community Shelter.

Christopher Cotymaier at the Lawrence Community Shelter.

How much more do you need?

This is the first Christmas that Christopher Cotymaier will be homeless, too.

It's also the first Christmas that the 21-year-old is coping with a Kansas winter. He came from Riverton, Calif., last month because he knew getting out was the only way he was going to change.

He was selling and using drugs, and trying to change his lifestyle there wasn't working.

"Nobody knows me here. I can be whatever I want. I don't got homies trying to beat me up or jump me because I didn't go or do what they wanted," Cotymaier says. "It's what I want to do, I can finally be me. This place has helped me do that."

He picked Lawrence because of his uncle, who lives in a halfway house here. His dad is in prison, and his mom died seven years ago. His only other relatives are his two kids, who live in Texas with his ex.

"Everybody out there is broke now, and it just got rougher and rougher as the days went by. I had this undying urge to feed my children, to get them where they need to be," he says of his two boys, who are 18 months and 30 months old.

"My kids give me a reason to get up in the morning. Before them, I'd still be out there doing drugs and selling them until I was 80."

His plan now is to get a Kansas ID card, a Social Security card, a job, a GED and then enroll at Kansas University.

"Might as well — it's a college town. And everything's a lot more peaceful here. I don't have to look over my back," he says. "I can just go. Everything's easy. I like it."

As for being here by himself for the holidays, Cotymaier shrugs it off.

"I haven't had a Christmas in seven years," he says. "There's a feeling I remember from growing up, and that to me is Christmas."

Raleigh Worthington knows there's nothing he can do to truly recreate that feeling for other guests at the shelter. But he says that won't stop him from making the most of it.

"You gotta try to create that spirit, that atmosphere," he says.

"You'll wake up Christmas Eve or Christmas morning and you'll walk in — and you're not singing very loud, but you're singin' loud enough for people in earshot to hear you singin' a Christmas carol, and they look at you and ask you: 'Why you so happy?'" Worthington says.

"Because I'm alive, and I'm breathing, and I'm lookin' at you and I'm talking to you. How much more do you need?"


Richard Renner 8 years, 4 months ago

Thank you so much for writing this article and getting the stories of the people who are at the shelter. They are articulate, thoughtful and poignant. My Christmas Spirit just arrived upon reading this.

Emily Hampton 8 years, 4 months ago

Yes. Thank you for hopefully helping the community to understand all of the different situations out there. How beautiful to hear their positive attitudes in the face of many challenges--keeps things in perspective.

50YearResident 8 years, 4 months ago

Accomadations are so good that people are coming all the way from California to live at the shelter. Word sure travels far when services are excellant.

Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 4 months ago

Read the article. He didn't move to Lawrence because he had heard of the shelter. He only found out about it after he got here and had problems. I hope they are helping him to realize his dreams as they are all attainable if he just sticks to it and works hard. Thanks to those who gave gifts and to those who are working hard at the shelter.

50YearResident 8 years, 4 months ago

Irish, You need to read the story again. He came to Lawrence because his Uncle in a halfway house told him about how good it is here. That is called "word of mouth".

SWJayhawk13 8 years, 4 months ago

"He picked Lawrence because of his uncle, who lives in a halfway house here" It doesn't say anything about his uncle telling him how good it is here.

Anyway, I'm glad that the shelter is making sure that their residents get a good Christmas. It does make me sad that they have so many families with children, though.

Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 4 months ago

"He picked Lawrence because of his uncle, who lives in a halfway house here. His dad is in prison, and his mom died seven years ago. His only other relatives are his two kids, who live in Texas with his ex."

That sounds to me like he chose Lawrence because of a relative living here. His family has a lot of problems to deal with. I just hope the uncle is working real hard to change his life and won't do something to drag the boy down. They both need to work hard to change. They need to set goals and be expected to meet those goals. I am praying for those who are homeless in this weather because I know not all of them are in the shelter and some will die in the days to come. Not hyperbole, reality.

Meatwad 8 years, 4 months ago

It would be nicer for the families and other residents if it were a 'dry' shelter like the Salvation Army was, instead of a 'wet' shelter.

Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 4 months ago

It would be nicer, but if those people had been outside last night think of what would have happened to them?

Sunny Parker 8 years, 4 months ago

Should have moved to one of those places where Obama had created some of the jobs he promised. Where ever that is.

Where is the 4 yr olds parents?

Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 4 months ago

Good question. Williams was evicted when he let his son, son's girlfriend and child live with him. I would like to see a follow up story on where the son and his girlfriend went because apparently they are not at the shelter.' Please don't tell me that they have a place to live and now the father who helped them out is suffering because of it. And, the child who is too young to fully appreciate what is happening to her. Maybe the grandfather should get custody and a place for both of them to live. Next time son and girlfriend come calling, don't answer the door.

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