The dining room in the men’s section of the Pine Street Inn was draped in garland and lights, the long tables set for a Christmas Eve lunch.
The 70 or so men sat and waited to be served. Some spoke softly to their neighbors, others just looked down as volunteers and shelter staff made some final arrangements before Cardinal Sean O’Malley said grace.
Headquartered in the South End, the Pine Street Inn has a mission centered around providing permanent housing, job training, shelter, and outreach to nearly 2,000 men and women daily. The shelter is set to serve thousands of Christmas meals with the help of more than 150 volunteers.
Bernard Simmons, 57, a guest at the shelter, quietly ate the soup O’Malley served him.
“It’s not a cheerful place, but it’s happy for the day,” Simmons said, smiling weakly.
Simmons has struggled with homelessness and addiction over the last 20 years, but said this past year has been particularly difficult.
Simmons lived with his mother on and off before she died in April. Since then, he’s been spending most nights at the shelter but has managed to maintain 18 months of sobriety.
“It gets lonely without close family,” he said, recalling his favorite Christmas memory: just drinking hot chocolate with his mother. He’s hoping that maybe he can get to see his two grandchildren in Dorchester for Christmas.
Lyndia Downie, the president and executive director of Pine Street Inn, beamed from the side of the room as guests ate.
Downie’s goal for the day, and the goal of the volunteers, was to take the edge off of the holidays, at least a little bit for the guests.
“It’s a very very hard time to be homeless,” Downie said. “Not that it’s easy any other part of the year, but this is a day where people feel it so acutely. Everybody else is spending time with friends and family.”
A volunteer handed Daryn Franz, 49, a candy cane which he hung on his button-up shirt like a necklace.
“I don’t really, you know, get into the Christmas spirit anymore,” said Franz, who has been staying at the shelter since January 2017. “I used to though!”
Franz said he loved giving presents to people but can’t afford to anymore.
Franz lost his apartment in Norwood in 2011 and has spent the last few years moving from place to place after a falling out with his parents. He has worked as a carpenter and as a handyman.
He smiled as he remembered his favorite Christmas, when his parents surprised him with a border collie he named Fluffy.
“I always wanted a dog,” he said.
Homelessness in Massachusetts increased by 14 percent in 2018, according to a new federal report.
Part of that increase was evacuees from Puerto Rico, “so it’s not quite apples to apples,” Downie said, adding that finding vacant and affordable housing has been a growing challenge.
Three percent of the homeless population in Boston sleeps outside, which is lower than similar cities like Seattle and San Francisco, she said.
“So many different social issues intersect here,” O’Malley said. “It’s a problem of unemployment, lack of housing, income inequality, health care for the mentally ill — it all manifests itself in homelessness.”
The story of Christmas is about a homeless family, the Holy Family, searching for a place to stay O’Malley reminded the men.
“Advent is a season of hope,” O’Malley said.
Downie’s hope for the guests is that by next Christmas they are enjoying holiday meals at their own tables.
Simmons has that hope. He has applied for housing and has aspirations to work as a cook someday with the help of the shelter’s training program.
“Hopefully things will work out. I’ve got faith and Pine Street is behind me,” he said.
Maddie Kilgannon can be reached at email@example.com.