For many of us, Thanksgiving is synonymous with family. We go home to our loving (if not stressful and slightly overbearing) relatives, eat substantial amounts of food, and laugh our way through awkward conversations. But not everyone can go home for Thanksgiving, and for some, being around family at this or any time of the year is toxic, unhealthy, or even a dangerous endeavor. For others, there is no home to go home to. That’s why this time of year, organizations across the country are preparing to offer homeless youth, survivors of abuse, refugees, and other displaced individuals a place to enjoy a meal, a laugh, and, if necessary, a safe place to sleep.
The Covenant House, the largest privately funded agency in the United States that provides food, immediate crisis care, and other services to homeless and runaway youth, is one such organization.
And he mentions teenagers specifically for good reason. A reported 1.7 million teens experience homelessness in the United States, according to the Department of Justice, and 34 percent of the total homeless population is under the age of 24. Eighty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and almost 1 in 5 youth will run away from home at least once in their life. According to Do Something, a non-profit focused on organizing youth to be more engaged in their communities, 50 percent of homeless youth report that “their parents told them to leave or knew they were leaving and didn’t care.” Definitely food for thought before you groan about being seated next to that one annoying uncle this year.
Monaghan says that for organizations like this, the focus around the holidays is to really “lift up the spirits” that are understandably melancholy this time of year. “We really focus on having events, activities, and meals that are fun that bring good spirit and really convey to young people that they’re valued and that we really appreciate them relying on us and being part of our community and part of our programs to help them,” he says. And because Thanksgiving is a popular time for people to become more involved and volunteer in their communities, the Covenant House experiences an influx of volunteers wrapping presents, serving a meal, coming to decorate cookies, playing games, and participating in arts and crafts.
But by far the most in demand Thanksgiving event, according to Monaghan, is Thanksgiving Day brunch, which starts around 9 a.m. “That’s a really popular one, and folks come and do everything from plating food to bringing plates of food to kids, and waiting on kids and single mothers and their children, helping with preparation, helping with cleanup, and helping with different games and activities post-meal, just to create the atmosphere that is fun and welcoming.” The youth attending Covenant House may not have the chance or the option to be home during Thanksgiving, but much effort goes to making them feel as if they have found a home, even if for that one day.
In New York City, organizations like The Bowery Mission, Trinity Place Shelter, and the Coalition for the Homeless, the country’s oldest advocacy and direct service organization helping homeless men, women, and children, are also preparing for Thanksgiving. “Coalition for the Homeless operates 11 direct service programs, including our Grand Central Food Program, which is a mobile soup kitchen that serves about 1,000 people every night,” says Jacquelyn Simone, Policy Analyst for Coalition for the Homeless. “That program has never missed a night of operation in over 30 years. So on Thanksgiving, on Christmas, on any of the holidays, our volunteers will still be out there driving the vans delivering hot, healthy meals to people who are sleeping on the street, people who are severely low income, and people who are precariously housed.”
That means bringing food to people who need it, in areas of high demand, like transportation terminals and certain parks. “Most importantly we’re going to where homeless people are,” Simone says. “We want our services to be as accessible to people as possible, and even getting on a subway and paying a subway fare would be a barrier to some people. We don’t want someone to feel like the very fact of their poverty is preventing them from getting help that is intended for people who are extremely poor.”
And because creating a family-like environment is important to The Coalition For The Homeless too, going to where people need food allows the organization to serve smaller groups at a time. “It seems more personal if you’re one of 20 people in line versus one of 1,000 people in line,” Simone says. “You have more of a direct connection.”
Elsewhere, that direct connection is forged by people cooking and eating together, family-style. James Winans, Chief Development Officer of The Bowery Mission, says their ovens turn on the Saturday before Thanksgiving and basically never go off until Thanksgiving Day. “We’re preparing all the turkey and all of the pies and all of the food in our kitchen, from fresh ingredients,” he says. “It’s quite the operation.” The Bowery Mission sees an influx of volunteers during Thanksgiving, too, due to the popularity of the holidays and the push to “give” during the season. “We opened up our volunteer opportunities for Thanksgiving online on Nov. 1 and within a few minutes all of our volunteer spots were filled,” he says. “There’s an uproar of enthusiasm on Thanksgiving—but we need volunteers the day after Thanksgiving, and the day after that.”
If you are lucky to have a home and the spirit of giving this holiday season, opening up your home to new and as-yet unsettled immigrants to this country could be a way to do it. The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), a non-profit organization and one of nine national resettlement agencies contracted with the government to help resettle refugees in the United States, has a focus on giving those who are displaced from their homes a chance to feel welcomed, safe, and cared for in their communities. In addition to their Hope for the Holidays program, which encourages Lutheran churches to write letters to people, mostly women and children, who are caught in the immigration enforcement system, LIRS offers an online tool kit for hosting a Thanksgiving dinner with immigrants in your community.
The online toolkit helps would-be hosts prepare for the meal, walks them through how to organize the event, and provides “hints” on what kind of conversations to have over dinner that are culturally appropriate. After all, Olagbaju says, Thanksgiving is supposed to be an “immigrant holiday.”
“We’re a nation of immigrants and everyone has an immigrant story,” Olagbaju says. According to the Pew Research Center, the United States resettled 33,000 refugees in 2017, and due to the Trump administration’s harsh immigration policies this year, Olagbaju expects to see another increase in need. “Last year we purchased more than 800 gifts for children and mothers in three detention centers; 19 Lutheran churches, community schools, and families participated in Hope for the Holidays; we sent more than 4,580 cards, and there were eight dinners that were organized in 2017,” he says. Just like the other organizations have expressed, the needs facing LIRS are not Thanksgiving-specific.
“This is not a one-time event,” Olagbaju says. “We see this as a way of getting people more comfortable talking about immigration issues, sharing their own stories, and being able to advocate. We are asking people to be advocates. Write their members of Congress, call their members of Congress, and let them know they want to accept more refugees and want to see our government enact more compassionate policies towards undocumented immigrants—our brothers and sisters in this country.” That’s the big-picture helping that needs to be done, in and around the small-picture stuff, like sharing a meal.
Local Domestic Violence programs are also gearing up for the holidays, according to Ruth M. Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting victims and survivors of domestic violence. One in four women and one in seven men will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, and women between the ages of 18 and 24 experience the highest rates of intimate partner violence, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline—and while there’s some dangerous mythologizing around a supposed increase in domestic violence around the holidays, this time of year does present a struggle in what is already a difficult situation for people enduring violence or emotional abuse at home.
Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t easy to “just leave” an abusive situation, especially since factors including finances, children, housing, lack of support, and so forth can make walking away challenging if not impossible. Many people will seek help this time of year while still living in an unsafe environment. “There are thousands of domestic violence programs throughout the nation,” Glenn tells InStyle, and “how they serve survivors on Thanksgiving varies.” She adds that anyone in need of a safe place to spend Thanksgiving can search the NCADV website for programs in their immediate area. “If you go to our website there’s a way for [someone] to search and then exit out, so that there’s no way to track what they looked for,” she says.
For Tod Monaghan, of the Covenant House, connecting on a human level with people who are enduring possibly the hardest moments of their lives is central to their mission on Thanksgiving, and the days before and after. “We’ve all overcome different challenges and adversity in our lives, and these kids are encountering some of those similar challenges and encountering some issues of trauma,” he says. “It’s important to hear from others in the community who have made their way themselves. So coming and serving a meal is great, but take the opportunity to get out from behind where the food is being served and sit with our young people and share a meal with them and have a conversation, and learn about them and what it is they’re working on, and what it is they’re focused on. That’s how everyday citizens can make an impact by providing some of that inspiration and some of that empathy.”
There are too many reasons to count that might prevent someone from going “home” for the holidays, but there are also plenty of ways to foster feelings of connectedness wherever you might find yourself. From national organizations to local community efforts, people who can’t go home have options this holiday season. And for those of us who do have a loving and warm home to celebrate in this year, Thanksgiving is a perfect opportunity to open it up to others.