A Homeless Christmas to Be Remembered

From time to time, people will ask what story has brought me the greatest joy and fulfillment.

Armenian child in Yerevan anxiously awaits the arrival of Gaghant Baba (Santa Claus). We at The Armenian Weekly and Hairenik Weekly wish our readers a happy and prosperous Christmas and New Year. (Tom Vartabedian photo)
Armenian child in Yerevan anxiously awaits the arrival of Gaghant Baba (Santa Claus). We at The Armenian Weekly and Hairenik Weekly wish our readers a happy and prosperous Christmas and New Year.
(Tom Vartabedian photo)

After 50 years, it’s a lot like picking which grandchild you love most.

There are favorites, but after giving it some thought, nothing could ever measure up to the time I went homeless one Christmas season.

No, my parents didn’t kick me out of the house. If anything, they would have opened their door to a vagrant or a derelict.

And, no, my wife didn’t point her finger to the outside and ask me to vacate the premises.

Oh, we’ve had our share of arguments over the Christmas tree and what gifts to buy for whom. But in such cases, I have gamely deferred to the mistress of this house and let harmony take its place.

Instead, I took to the streets during the Christmas season in the best interests of journalism to get the story that wasn’t coming to me.

I kissed my wife goodbye, gave my children a hug, and lived inside a shelter for three days and two nights. I went homeless at a time when I enjoyed all the comforts of my world: a loving family, a good home, a reliable job that led to some shenanigans like these, and plenty of food on my table.

The only people who knew were the editor who suggested the assignment, my family, and the director of the shelter. Even my co-workers were kept in the dark and assumed I had just taken some vacation time.

I had a theatrical make-up artist change my appearance, and didn’t recognize myself in the mirror. I was incognito from the moment I stepped out of my home to when I returned—all the better for my experience.

I slept in their bed, ate their food, talked their talk, and walked their streets during the day. It was the experience of a lifetime—all the more accentuated by the Christmas season—including the time I spent behind bars in an undercover mission or frequenting AA meetings as a concealed alcoholic.

As a reporter, I often got to choose my assignments, even if some of them were meant to incriminate me. Most often, you have to live the experience to write about it effectively.

The first day I walked into that shelter, I’ll admit it: I felt like a mouse at an owl convention. My body was shaking until one of the regulars came over and gave me the welcome sign.

“I’m Ronald,” he said, “but people around here call me Buddy. Welcome to our home. We ask no questions, give no answers, mind our own business, and get along just fine together.”

They took me under their wing, possibly struck by the haggard wardrobe I was wearing and the shoes with the tattered laces. I was suddenly a part of a very indigent community, many of whom were one paycheck away from becoming wayward.

Buddy said it best that evening during an after-dinner chitchat, words that left me with an indelible impact.

“We’re not homeless, son,” he pointed out. “Just down on our luck.”

They wanted to know who this “new kid on their block” was and how I happened to wind up there. Without blowing my cover, I told them I was just passing through town with nowhere to go and needed a place to stay. Somebody recommended the mission house up this street.

No reporter pad for this story, not even a napkin note. No communication with anyone from the outside. My bed was a communal cot, much like an army barracks, where the snoring and stench of complete strangers kept you sleepless.

By the third day, I had gotten to know some of the most compassionate people you’d ever want to meet—people like me and you who deserved a better fate. My stomach turned when a young man brought his father to the door in a blatant gesture of neglect.

A pregnant woman was getting close to her due date, worried about her fate as well as her newborn’s. Those spending the night in that mission acted like the town of Bethlehem at Christmas and offered the woman their support.

On the third day, I ate a cold breakfast, bid farewell to my newly adopted family of castoffs, and walked out the door to a nearby CVS parking lot where I had left my car. I felt exonerated.

The story I had intended to write turned into a three-part series on homelessness in my community, straight from the source. It was a good Christmas after all, maybe my best, as people in my city rallied together in donating both money and resources to the shelter.

I felt truly blessed.

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Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
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