Starla Prickett folded jeans, T-shirts and blankets with her two young daughters at the Good News at Noon shelter on Davis Street on Thanksgiving in Gainesville, preparing the items to be distributed to those in need.
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” Prickett said, explaining why she brought her children along to volunteer on the distinctively American holidays. “I think it’s priceless to have a worldview that’s realistic.”
The lesson Prickett was teaching may one day help her kids understand why Carl, an African-American in his 50s who declined to give his last name, has been living under the Queen City bridge on and off for about 10 years.
The days are long and the nights longer for him and others who find refuge at this homeless camp, especially this time of year when cold rain and bone-chilling temperatures settle in.
But Thanksgiving brings a brief respite from the stark reminders of how they got here — addiction, financial hardship, a string of broken relationships with family and friends — especially when people like Prickett and her children are reaching out.
“It could be worse,” Carl said as he warmed his hands Thursday morning near a barrel fire.
He was thinking of jail or death, destinations that never seem too far from the hearts and minds of the city’s homeless.
Of course, things could be better, too.
“Sometimes, I’d rather be in jail,” Demetric Newberry said as he bowed before a makeshift cross erected at the homeless camp and strung with rosary beads.
It’s a paradox, to be sure, but there’s a certain security for people like Newberry in having their freedom taken away. Life in jail means shelter, routine meals, a shower, he said.
But even that sense of loss, which makes a man desire incarceration over freedom, dissipates slightly on Thanksgiving.
Part of the reason is donations and assistance from local churches, nonprofits and community groups have increased this year, Carl said, an indication the economy is improving and people are giving more of their time and money.
And that’s a blessing not lost on those living under the bridge, where sharing is a way of life.
Boxes of shoes are available to anyone who needs a pair. Empty cans and other recyclables are available for reuse and for trade-in value.
A wooden table acts as a centerpiece in the camp, where food, cooking supplies and other resources are stocked for community use.
There’s a big stack of neatly cut firewood for burning, and a couple of couches make for a kind of living room where residents can congregate, converse and enjoy a fire.
Those who regularly call this place home, about a dozen or so, have become like an extended family, Carl said.
In the last week or so, many local organizations have pitched in to make life a little easier here, and that help continued on Thanksgiving.
Antioch Baptist Church on Mill Street passed out hundreds of turkeys to residents last weekend, and Under the Bridge Ministries doled out 1,000 boxes of food to the homeless and hungry.
And on Thursday, resident Martha Randolph led a benefit to distribute blankets, coats and a hot meal to the city’s homeless with support from the Georgia Mountain Food Bank.
“There are some people who don’t want to be down here,” Carl said, but he’s grateful for those who do show up.
While the homeless were served under the bridge, many low-income families packed the mess hall at the Good News shelter for a Thanksgiving lunch.
“In good times or bad, they’re always here,” said Hector Ortiz, a resident of the local Melrose community who works in the restaurant industry and comes to Good News often for a warm, free meal.
Good News founder Gene Beckstein said he’s seen the demographics of the people seeking assistance from the shelter change over a quarter century, from predominantly African-American to largely Hispanic and Latino, with a growing number of white working class mixed in.
Shelter Director Thomas Ramirez said Good News was “very busy” handing out clothes and food to hundreds of families, with a healthy volunteer staff making it happen.
Kent and Ann Murphey said they wanted to serve others on Thanksgiving and will wait until this weekend to celebrate with family.
And that speaks to the nature of traditions in America, which are at once absolute and subject to change.
So in the service of others, gorging on food and football can wait.
Gainesville Councilman George Wangemann, who was seen stacking plates of food on his arms like a professional waiter as he made his way from table to table feeding men, women and children, said there is great reward in giving.
He cited a passage from the Gospel to explain this point, when Jesus says something like this: Whatever you have done for the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done for me.
After all, there are people like Willie Alexander who, at one time or another, need to be pulled from the shadows.
Now a food services supervisor at Good News, Alexander said he once forgot what it was like to appreciate the meaning of Thanksgiving.
He was incarcerated for about two decades, and wasn’t sure where to go after being released until he found a new life at the shelter.
“I stopped believing in holidays like this,” he said. “I’ve learned to love again.”