Side by side they stood, mothers, brothers and grandmothers, passing around plates laden with apple pie and ham. Nearly 200 people packed into the small white house, near the intersection of Cobb Parkway and Canton Road to eat and celebrate the holiday.
“I don’t really know where to call home,” said Leonard, who did not wish to give his last name or age.
As he bit into a piece of pecan pie, Leonard explained how he ended up being served dinner at Wednesday’s event.
Originally from Chicago, the former drummer seemed to repeatedly run into bad luck, and recently found himself out of work. He bounced around jobs, working as a truck driver and with mental patients as a health care provider, but everything seemed to have “petered out,” this year.
“In the situation a lot of us are in, we are surrounded by nice people, and we eat well,” he said, looking around at the table of strangers.
Leonard has plans to move to Texas in the coming year, where he hopes to find more opportunity for work. But on Wednesday, he was happy to be at MUST Ministries.
“It’s a great place to be in a bad time,” he said.
Leonard wasn’t alone at his table. Many of the people who came for food Wednesday had similar stories. The last few years had been hard for them, jobs were scarce and rent was expensive. Many people, like Leonard, had wound up in Georgia after searching for work in a number of other states.
Helga, who did not want to give her last name or age, sat at a table and explained how it felt to be homeless on Christmas.
“On Christmas, I’m used to spending it with family. Without having a home, it’s really different. These strangers are becoming good friends and I feel more at home when I have friends around,” she said.
Helga recently came to Georgia from South Carolina. She couldn’t find a job there, and left her family to seek out work here. She is staying at a shelter in Cobb County waiting to find work.
“Boy, I’ve had a bad year,” she said.
Volunteers learning as well
Across the room, Kijuan Reid, 33, of Douglasville, was experiencing homelessness for the first time. Wearing a red Santa hat, Reid and his fiancee, Airan, were volunteering at the dessert table passing out decorated sugar cookies, cake pops and chocolate chip cookies.
“I was surprised at the number of people here,” he said.
Although he saw homeless people while driving around the area, he had never worked face-to-face with them before, and he was enjoying the experience.
“This is a good time to help out,” said Jean Larsan, of east Cobb.
She and her husband, Chuck, have been volunteering at the Christmas dinner for 10 years.
The couple, now in their 60s, stood side-by-side and dished out chili, chicken thighs and bread rolls as the line of people needing food streamed through the door.
“This year seems busier. They’re hungry,” she said.
Homelessness ongoing issue in Cobb
MUST Ministries is just one of a number of local organizations that help the homeless population in Cobb County.
It is difficult to track the number of homeless people in the area, because many do not report to shelters and many move around frequently, MUST employees said.
Recent numbers of the total number of homeless in the region do not exist, but a recent MDJ article reported there are 1,800 homeless children in the Cobb County school system.
The organization helps more than 34,000 each year, according to its website, providing food, shelter and clothing to those in need.
MUST relies on a number of volunteers to keep up with the demand for help, and Rosie Echevarria is one of the roughly 125 people who worked together to put on the Christmas dinner.
Echevarria has been running the dinner for four years now, and said she has learned a lot through the process.
A former Cobb County teacher, Echevarria began volunteering for MUST with her two children, Jared, now 10, and Alexandra, now 12, five years ago. She said her faith drew her to the organization, and she looks forward to the holiday event each year.
“It’s about sharing love and telling them their circumstances are only temporary. Any one of us could be in their shoes,” she said.