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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Christmas spirit alive and well at homeless shelter

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Joe Momosea doesn't have a chimney. Or a house. But he still has the Christmas spirit.

Joe Momosea, at IHS with one of his four children, 10-month-old Precious, has one Christmas wish: "To have a good future for my kids."

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

He has taped Santa Claus wrapping paper to the back of a locker that serves as a headboard in the space he shares with his wife and four children at the Institute for Human Services.

Tinsel, a few ornaments and shiny red ribbon dangle from the top.

Momosea holds his youngest, 10-month-old Precious, and says he is lucky.

"I'm really glad they have a place like this," Momosea said. "Without this place I don't know where my kids would be and it would be an even worse Christmas."

People like Momosea, along with workers and volunteers across the Islands who will cook and serve meals, sing carols and give gifts — and aloha — send an important message in a year that found homelessness at its worst ever in Hawai'i:

The Christmas spirit can find you wherever you are, whether it's among friends or strangers, in a house of your own, in a shelter or on the beach.

On any given night more than 6,000 people are living in Hawai'i's public parks, on its beaches and along its streets. That's up 90 percent from the 3,171 homeless people counted in a 1999 survey.

As a result, shelters and support agencies are stretched beyond capacity and left to lean even more heavily on volunteers who are answering the call again this Christmas.

Sara Harris, a 17-year-old senior at Punahou School, gathered a group of schoolmates to wrap presents at the IHS Holiday Store. The store is filled with donated items given to the homeless so that they can in turn give them to loved ones. This year 75 women, 15 men and 24 families selected gifts.

Homeless people are often stereotyped, "but they're just normal people and celebrate the same way we do," Harris said.

Janice Wright decorates the Christmas tree in the sleeping area of the Institute for Human Services in Iwilei. Wright, who has no income, picked up gifts for each of her grandchildren at the IHS Holiday Store.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

She said she learned the importance of giving through her mother, who volunteers every month to serve breakfast at the men's shelter.

"She emphasized this was an important cause to help," Harris said. "We are all really lucky. We don't realize how lucky we are to have a Christmas every year."

Jana, Howard and Ari Wolff are a Jewish family who dress up as Santa's elves every year at IHS and help pass out gifts.

Jana Wolff said the family is responding to the Jewish tradition called sedaka, which is a mandate to take responsibility for people who have less than you do.

"There is no more powerful way to understand that than to be there," Wolff said. "When we leave the shelter dressed in red and green we feel both fulfilled and a little bit sad. It is a funny combination. We go back to our home, but we see people who really could be us. There is really nothing that separates us but circumstances."

Bill Hanrahan, project director of Safe Haven, a service provider for people who are homeless and mentally ill, said they have been overwhelmed with volunteers this holiday season.

"We have a flooding of volunteers during the holidays," Hanrahan said. "I think because it gets spoken about much more in church, people are thinking about it. They are counting their blessings. All those movies about Christmas and Scrooge that talk about these type of issues — there is just much more awareness for people."

Unlike Thanksgiving, there are no big public meals open to everyone on Christmas. Each shelter or church or service provider holds its own ceremony, big or small.

"It can be very hard spending the holidays in a shelter, struggling with unemployment, unable to afford to buy special gifts for family members, battling depression and a range of other personal obstacles," said Lynn Maunakea, IHS executive director. "The IHS Holiday Store is a wonderful way for the community to help our guests celebrate the holidays with dignity and self-respect."

Janice Wright, who has been living on the streets since August, picked up gifts at the store for each of her grandchildren.

"I got toys for the kids and I got bus passes for the older kids through my church," Wright said. "It was really nice to be able to do because I have no income."

Janny Papas and Michael Keao have been homeless for about a year and recently moved into the family shelter with their 3-month-old daughter, Constance, who will spend her first Christmas living in a shelter.

"I do wish we could have our own place," Papas said. "This is her first Christmas. I wouldn't want to spend that in a homeless shelter."

But, she said, "I want to say thank you to all the people that donated presents because that really helped out a lot. We really appreciate it."

The Christmas celebration for families at IHS will culminate with the giving of gifts.

The 23 families share a communal tree. At the appointed time, they will each take their turn, placing presents under the tree for their children.

Momosea can't wait to see the look on the faces of his children.

As for him, there is one thing he's hoping for.

"To have a good future for my kids," he said.

Reach James Gonser at jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2431.