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Thanksgiving looks different on L.A.’s skid row this year

In non-pandemic times, Thanksgiving at the Midnight Mission shelter can be quite festive.

There’s a street carnival with bands playing, volunteers scurrying about and enough turkey to put someone in a coma.

Often as many as 2,500 people show up along with 400 volunteers.

Not this year.

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The homeless shelter has drastically scaled down its program for fear of undermining the progress it has made keeping COVID-19 from sweeping through its dormitories. Only a handful of residents and employees have tested positive since the virus arrived in Los Angeles and caused much of the city to lock down — which complicated how the shelter helps the neediest.
Keeping guests safe remains the top priority, said Georgia Berkovich, director of public affairs for the Midnight Mission. The shelter normally holds about 280 people, but because of social distancing protocols instituted by the county, 121 live there right now.
Berkovich said lunch Thursday will be a Thanksgiving-themed meal with turkey, yams, stuffing and “all the fixings.” It’ll be served by staff and residents who have been adhering to strict protocols.

Several grocery stores, including Albertsons and Erewhon, donated supplies. Residents will dine in small groups in their courtyard. The shelter, which does a robust service of three meals a day, will be cooking 50 turkeys for lunch. These meals will be to-go.

“We’re expecting we’re probably going to see a larger number of people than we would on a typical Thursday because it is Thanksgiving and other organizations don’t serve,” Berkovich said.

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Another challenge this year, she said, was keeping away the do-gooders who flock to skid row to give back before their own meals. People are eager as ever, but Berkovich has been telling them to stay home — and not because she doesn’t need the help.

“We found that COVID comes to skid row from the outside, not from within. It’s people like me, who go to a supermarket or are at the airport. I’m out being careful but living my life,” she said.

“We’ve been encouraging people — and I always try to put a positive spin on situations like this — I say, ‘So sorry. We don’t have anything for you to do here, but we’ve got great news, you can volunteer from your own kitchen.’”

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For example, she said, the artists who normally participate in the shelter’s music program have been making bagged sandwich meals and dropping them off at the skid row location. On Thanksgiving, she said, the L.A. Works volunteer program is preparing 600 bagged sandwich lunches that it plans to drop off.

Other nonprofits and mutual aid groups are finding ways to make sure that food and supplies get to people in need. For example, Ground Game L.A. is working with several other organizations to set up locations across the city where homeless people can pick up food.

The Laugh Factory in Hollywood normally does several free comedy shows and meals for people with nowhere to go. This year it will be hosting an outdoor meal to make sure people get their fix.

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Back on skid row, the Union Rescue Mission has already held its main event. Skid row’s largest shelter would usually have nearly 400 people in its cafeteria for a party.

This year, shelter workers deep-fried turkeys on the loading dock and served the meal on the shelter’s large roof in shifts of 33. Guests ate sweet potatoes, cabbage, macaroni along with pie while listening to a Christmas quartet.

That was for the people living inside the shelter, which has seen its capacity drop from more than 1,000 to less than 400.

The shelter saw one of the first outbreaks on skid row in March, and the Rev. Andy Bales, its chief executive, said it was disappointing not being able to gather as in years past. Still, the shelter is committed to helping as many people as possible.

For homeless men and women who aren’t staying inside right now, Bales and others handed out to-go meals along with gift bags full of masks and hygiene products.

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“Most years it’s like a grand party and [for] the Thanksgiving celebration this year we just had to make a lot of adjustments,” he said.

“Still, many of us are likely more thankful than ever to have our health in these difficult times.”