Like a growing number of people across Florida, Erik Leeborg has no real place to call “home” for the holidays. He joined dozens of others like him at the Salvation Army in Bradenton on Christmas, partaking in a free dinner of turkey and all of the trimmings.
Despite being unemployed and homeless, he remained optimistic about his future.
“It’s just a bump in the road,” said Leeborg, a former construction worker and painter. “It could be worse. Unfortunately, it is what it is. We just hit on bad times.”
Salvation Army was one place offering a free home-cooked meal Christmas afternoon. Alvarez Mexican Restaurant in Palmetto also offered free meals for anyone who had no place to go for Christmas — or was just looking for a good hot meal.
More than 500 gathered for the holiday dinner prepared by the Alvarez family at the restaurant. They cooked up 20 turkeys, 10 hams, carne con chili and rice and beans.
It’s all about the community helping the community, said Marie Alvarez, the restaurant’s owner. She started the Christmas tradition seven years ago with friend and “Santa Claus” John Lawson.
“We just do it for the community that doesn’t have a place to go,” she said. “They can come and join everybody so they are not alone.”
Like the Alvarez’s, the Salvation Army expected a crowd, and prepared about 1,000 meals.
“If you don’t have family and friends, you can sit around the table with someone,” said Major Bob Parker.
Jim McKee, who is in charge of the kitchen, said they based expectations on the crowd that turned out for Thanksgiving.
“We’re much busier this year,” he said.
The Salvation Army has been seeing a different kind of people seeking help in recent months, McKee said. The “new homeless” are people losing their jobs and their homes, and have moved in with family or friends.
“These people don’t have anything,” said McKee. “Half of them don’t have a home to go to.”
Such was the case for Alan LeGoff, who started living at the Salvation Army a couple of months ago, after losing his job, his apartment, and with no family to turn to.
“Thank goodness for the Salvation Army,” the 56-year-old said. “Instead of sleeping in a doorway, I have a warm place to sleep at night.”
Like Leeborg and LeGoff, John Dorey got laid off from his quality control job at Donzi Marine two years ago and now lives at the Salvation Army. He is appreciative of the holiday feast and a place to be for Christmas.
“I’m just thankful there’s a place for those who need it,” he said. “It’s not exactly the place I’d prefer to be. I’d rather be on my own, or with family or friends.”
On the tables in the dining hall were placards that read: “May love, joy, peace and goodwill be your gift at Christmas, and may God shower you with blessings all the new year through.”