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Christmas a day of sorrow, strength for Gainesville homeless
Demetric Newberry bows recently before a makeshift cross erected and strung with rosary beads at the homeless camp under the Queen City bridge in Gainesville.

As the rain pooled beneath the Queen City bridge in the chilly mist of Wednesday morning, a few homeless men scrambled to move couches, tables, a barrel fire and personal items to higher ground.

But it was too late to save other things from a good soaking — a stack of firewood, a few Bibles.

The past few days here have been especially trying for the dozen or so individuals who call this place — located down a gravel road along a railroad line, adjacent to storage shelters and a poultry plant — home for the holidays.

As cold, damp weather settled on the city this week, the prospect of spending Christmas sheltered beneath the bridge was met with both sorrow and strength at Gainesville’s most well-known homeless camp.

“You learn how to hide your feelings,” said Carl, 51, who has lived here on and off for about 10 years.

But in the loneliness of night, in the confines of his nylon tent, Carl admits that he gets emotional thinking about and longing for his family, especially his grandkids.

This place is in as bad a shape as ever, the residents here say. The trash is piling up. Basic supplies are dwindling. There hasn’t been proper toilet sanitation for some time.

And the trials and travails of surviving this life take on new meaning this time of year.

The homeless here are not dismissive of their own hand in their plight. Broken relationships, drug addiction, the inability to hold down a job.

And some even choose to be here, given the likely alternatives they face, such as squatting in abandoned homes, or stealing and dealing to make a living, both of which come with the risk of going to jail.

Then again, mental and medical illness also drives some people out of their homes and onto the streets. Certain things in life are simply out of our control.

And, particularly in recent years, the economy has limited employment prospects for many of the city’s homeless, and made it difficult for even the working class to pay their rent and bills as wages in the service industry, construction and other labor-intensive jobs remain depressed.

But when Christmas comes, the reasons that got them here are not all that important. The homeless must find a way to survive like everyone else.

“It’s just another day,” said Kerwin, 48.

The sun rises. The sun sets. The sun rises again. He’s not being cynical, just realistic.

And, Kerwin added, his sentiment is as much a commentary on his own predicament as it is about the commercialism of Christmas. While people were scrambling for last-minute gifts on Christmas Eve across Hall County, he was just trying to stay warm and keep his belly from groaning.

While the holidays are not quite the celebratory time for the city’s homeless like they are for so many others, those who live under the bridge find as much solace in their faith as anyone else.

“I’m not spiritually homeless,” said Arce, a petite woman who came here only in recent weeks after being laid off from her job. She celebrates Hanukkah, which ended Wednesday.

New York, as he’s called by his closest friends, said he couldn’t survive living here without his faith in Christ. He hopes to get back in the workforce soon, ideally in the food-processing industry.

Carl, too, said Christmas is a special day, a reminder of what he has despite what

he’s lost.

The homeless here say they look out for each other, protect each other and act like family. And for some, it’s all the family they’ve got.

Carl said he believes this sense of camaraderie may actually bring more of the city’s homeless together today. 

“They’re feeling sad and just want someone to be around,” he said.

Editor’s note: Last names of the homeless quoted in this story were not printed to protect their identities.

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