This Christmas is the first holiday in nearly two years that Vladislava Kotlyar has had a home to call her own.
After bouncing around a couple shelters, Kotlyar moved in April into an affordable housing unit built by St. Francis House, across the street from its day shelter in downtown Boston.
“It gives me a sense of self-achievement, happiness, gratitude — a lot of gratitude — and love for everyone who’s out there helping,” Kotlyar said Wednesday, sitting in a small library at St. Francis House, where hundreds celebrated Christmas Day.
Kotlyar, 55, planned to split her day between her friends at St. Francis House and her extended family nearby. She said being at the day shelter gives her a sense of belonging.
“I feel comfortable,” she said. “I feel blessed.”
Kotlyar sat in the first row during the Christmas prayer service, led by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who spoke about the message of the holiday and reminded about 30 people who attended that everyone matters — no matter their circumstances.
Each year, O’Malley shares the story of Christmas with St. Francis House guests, reminding them that even the story of Jesus’s birth includes his own journey with homelessness.
It’s a message he hopes will make people experiencing homelessness in Boston feel less alone.
“There’s so much fantasy about Christmas. There’s so much commercialization about Christmas. There’s so much sentimentality, but for God, nothing’s improvised. I mean, if the Christ child was born in homelessness, there’s a message in that,” O’Malley said after his service.
St. Francis House staff and about 50 volunteers served lunch to the shelter’s guests after the service.
In preparation, the staff and volunteers prepared 160 pounds of stuffed chicken breasts, 145 pounds of mashed potatoes, 100 pounds of green beans with almonds, 75 pounds of cranberry walnut salad, 60 gallons of apple cider, 770 rolls, and 84 assorted holiday pies.
Karen LaFrazia, chief executive of St. Francis House, said she hopes the annual Christmas lunch can be a source of comfort for people who aren’t where they currently want to be in their lives — “to help people find their peace and their journey home,” she said.
“Oftentimes, people, when they’re experiencing homelessness, they’re shunned. There’s a lot of shame. So at St. Francis House, we really do the opposite. We’re welcoming people,” she said. “The thing that can rob you of your sense of identity, that robs your soul, is the sense of anonymity. The loneliness is more toxic than anything else.”
It’s a reality known to Mike Marsh, who spent his second Christmas at St. Francis House this year and said going into 2020, he’s hoping for four things: steady work, reliable transportation, a place to live, and a partner to spend his life with.
“I’m a single man, and I’m just trying to get the stuff back that I should have had years ago,” said Marsh, 44, who has been living at the Pine Street Inn on and off for about three years.
Marsh is frustrated and angry at himself, he said, disappointed in the fact that if he had “only done these certain things years ago, I wouldn’t be in the predicament I’m in.”
“My loneliness and me being alone for four years now, it’s now needing [someone],” he said. “It would fix the rest of my puzzle.”
Jenn Smith, 42, has experienced that loneliness, too. She felt the need to have a community rallying around her when she decided a couple months ago to make her recovery from drug and alcohol use a priority.
Smith, who has been going to St. Francis House for three years, said she found a “no-nonsense” sober community there when a recovery support center was launched in October.
The entire fifth floor was converted into a sober environment for people to find support and meet others in recovery.
“I’m just really grateful because it’s peaceful, and I can be myself,” she said. “I can’t say enough about this place. It’s like my home. I’ve been here every day for the past two months.”
But that doesn’t take away the sting of experiencing homelessness during the holiday season or being away from family, Smith said.
Next year, Smith would ideally like to spend Christmas with her three kids, ages 25, 21, and 11. And she dreams of having her own home one day too, she said.
“It would probably be so cool to have a key and be able to lock my door behind me,” she said. “But I’m not there yet.”