While many of us fret over Christmas parties, stocking stuffers, turkeys and gifts, there are currently 633,782 Americans who don't have a bed or warm meal to come home to this holiday season. Though the federal government and local communities have fronted vigorous efforts to increase the number of beds available to the homeless over the past four years, that alarming statistic still remains steady. In fact, of that 633,782, there are an estimated 238,000 families who are homeless -- a number that has spiked, according to the latest figures.
This disturbing rate of homelessness in America, revealed just this month, has lit a fire beneath local homeless support services. Homeless shelters such as New York City's NYC Rescue Mission already house 120 homeless men each night, with plans to expand to 250 beds per night in 2014. Currently, NYC Rescue serves 500 meals per day across breakfast, lunch and dinner. (Over Thanksgiving the shelter served 1,000 meals, with over 50 turkeys.) In addition to the nightly beds offered (individuals are selected at random via a lottery system) and the hot meals prepared on a walk-in basis, NYC Rescue -- like The Bowery Mission and the Third Street Shelter, also in New York City -- offers an intensive Residential Recovery Program for homeless men. The nine-month program not only offers long-term food and shelter for 30 needy men, but also educational and rehabilitation services.
Such services and programs are especially necessary during the winter holidays, when the weather and the season's emotional associations can be especially hard on the homeless. Despite widespread perceptions, many homeless individuals are not criminals, vagrants or substance abusers. Many of them are just like us -- they simply want to support themselves and their families. Some are even working families who send their children to school and are simply trying to regain their financial footing. Some lost their homes due to natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. In any case, it's been shown that homelessness can "happen to anybody" and that homeless people, like regular people, are merely trying to build a better life with the resources at hand (even if very limited).
Interviews conducted by AOL Real Estate also found that many homeless people are, despite their situations, highly thankful this Christmas season and deeply appreciative of the essential non-material things in life often overlooked by the general population.
'I'm Just Grateful For a New Day': Christopher Toilber's Story
Even in his worst nightmares, Christopher David Toilber (pictured below left) never imagined that he'd end up homeless. Quite the opposite, in fact: Toilber was born in the Bronx's Lincoln Hospital on Christmas Day, 1961, and he thus considered himself a lucky man -- for he was born "on the same day as the Lord Jesus," he said.
The born-and-bred New Yorker later met and married his wife, and they lived together in an apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., under her name, for many years. Life seemed to be going swimmingly for this self-proclaimed lucky man, he said, until his wife died of health complications and he lost his job. Penniless and with his name not on the lease, seemingly in an instant, Toilber found himself homeless and alone.
For four years, a heartbroken Toilber wandered the streets of New York City aimlessly, searching for temporary shelter and food wherever he could. While on the streets, Toilber found himself turning to alcohol and drugs for solace. He unsuccessfully went "in and out" of rehabilitation programs by various shelters in the city and was about to give up hope -- until August 2012, when he stumbled upon NYC Rescue on Lafayette Avenue. Here, Toilber was offered a hot meal, shelter, and most importantly, companionship. Toilber finally found a community that would embrace and understand him without judgment and offer emotional support -- something Toilber says is especially important during what can be a very lonely holiday season.
Though Toilber will remain homeless this Christmas -- his 51st birthday -- he possesses a deep gratitude for life this holiday season. During an interview with AOL Real Estate, his eyes glistened with emotion when asked what he was most thankful for this Christmas.
"I am just grateful for a new day. To come so close [to ending it all, and then], to wake up every day and have another chance," Toilber said. "And I'm grateful to have a bed to sleep in and food in my stomach this Christmas."
Also in this series:
'I'm Thankful for Life Itself'
'Thankful I Overcame'
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