Volunteers see a duty in providing homeless with a Christmas


Homeless residents gather around a decorated tree and listen to Jennifer Smith, Women's director for House of Hope, speak before receiving gifts from volunteers at Bo Diddley Community Plaza on Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013 in Gainesville, Fla. After getting a hot breakfast, residents received a gift bag and stocking filled with items including hygiene products, socks, scarves and gift cards for food.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Wednesday, December 25, 2013 at 5:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 25, 2013 at 5:33 p.m.

Jennifer Smith remembers what is was like to be homeless on Christmas Day. For eight years, she combed Gainesville's streets looking for daily comfort, and Christmas was no different.

These days, she's providing that comfort to the city's homeless as the leader of downtown ministries, an informal group that provides breakfast to people on Saturday mornings in Bo Diddley Community Plaza and organizes Christmas there.

On Wednesday morning, a long line of people wrapped around the plaza for a breakfast of biscuits and gravy, sausage, boiled eggs, fruit and yogurt. Volunteers wove through the line handing out cups of hot coffee and cream. A decorated Christmas tree stood on a ledge of the plaza, with dozens of wrapped gifts and goodie bags filled with cologne, perfume, hats and lip balm. Everyone got a box of chocolate, too.

"Everyone will get a gift," Smith said. "We play dominoes, cards. We hang out."

Smith, who is also the director of the women's division of House of Hope, a transitional prison ministry, said she treats the people on the plaza like family. Her message, she said, is one of unconditional love.

"There isn't anything they've done that I haven't done," said Smith, who says she was a drug addict for 21 years. "If I can clean up, so can they. I just want everyone to know they're loved. We're a safe place."

That's been true for Marcus Scott ever since Smith started doing Christmas on the plaza six years ago. Scott is no longer homeless, but he still enjoys coming because of the positive energy on the plaza.

"The work they're doing … there are not too many people who do it like they do," Scott said. "They make them feel like they've got a family, and everyone gets something."

One homeless man named John said, "It's heartwarming to see everyone gathered together and no fighting. But the day is still young."

A former commercial fisherman who has been homeless for several years, John said he considers many of the people at the plaza to be acquaintances. He added that he once gave away two tents because other people needed them more than he did.

Volunteer Monica Groce said it's important for people to know and trust that the volunteers will be there on Christmas Day. A volunteer since 2009, Groce makes grits every Saturday and has been helping out at Christmas for several years, too. Now it's part of her holiday tradition.

As a devout Christian, the experience is also part of her personal ministry, she added.

"When I read the Bible, it says feed the hungry and poor, period," Groce said. "This is something I can do."

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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