DeKALB – Jazzi Dixon sat in front of a Christmas tree decked out with ornaments and lights in the living room area of Hope Haven homeless shelter and said she’s looking forward to throwing Shanice Randolph a gender reveal party.
“The people here are really nice,” said Dixon, 38. It’s her second time staying with three of her five children at the shelter. “We treat everybody like family. It gets hectic, but it’s real life around here. It’s very warm during the holidays. They feed us good. I gain a good 25 pounds. I call it my winter coat,” Dixon said Friday, her laughter filling the room.
Like most families this time of year, the residents at Hope Haven also are preparing for Christmas, with a little help from staff, volunteers, community donations and even a visit from the big man himself. Dixon, 38, has been at the shelter since mid-October. Randolph, 25, has been there since September, with her 2-year-old, Tyshawn. Randolph’s expecting a baby May 2, and the shelter already is planning ways to shower her. “That’s what families do,” was the general sentiment Friday afternoon.
For the past five years, Michael Zack has brought Santa Claus to Hope Haven and provided gifts for the children and families staying there, through a GoFundMe fundraiser he organizes independently. As of Sunday afternoon, $1,500 had been raised, surpassing a $900 goal. Zack uses the money to buy winter coats and toys for the children, which are then delivered by Santa. There are 13 children at the shelter this year, and some wrote a letter to Santa, said Angie Shaulis, emergency shelter coordinator. They'll wake up just like other children Christmas morning, with presents under the tree.
“When Santa comes in, the kids are so excited,” Shaulis said. “Oh my gosh, they flock to him. He makes sure that every child’s name is on the gift.”
Zack said he’s blown away by the support from DeKalb County for the fundraiser, which he started in 2015.
“This year has been incredible,” he said. “Because 13 kids is the most we’ve ever had to get gifts for. We do everything we can to spend every penny wisely.”
Hope Haven currently is at capacity, Shaulis said, providing shelter for 31 single men and 11 single women, plus four families with children. She said providing normalcy during the holidays is the goal.
“We like to keep everything for them to a degree that they’re not impacted by it as much as we can,” Shaulis said. “Because that impacts them at school, with their own mental health. So it’s awesome because it’s really a home experience. They don’t lose Christmas magic.”
Home for the holidays
Dixon grew up in East St. Louis and has bounced around, from Los Angeles to Arizona to Denver. Her children, Raja, 20; Maurice, 16; Amallah, 11; Kazeden, 9; and Kiara, 6, are the reason she keeps going, she said. She first came to Hope Haven in October 2018 and spent the holidays at the shelter. Then she took her children with her to live with her father for a few months in Arizona, but that didn’t work out. She returned to Hope Haven this fall.
Randolph, from Chicago, said Shaulis also helped her find a room in the shelter at the eleventh hour.
“I was staying with somebody, and it just didn’t work out,” she said. “I came up here, and they didn’t have any beds at first. But then Angie called me just in time, and I was really happy because I really needed that.”
Randolph said everyone loves Tyshawn, but she’d like to be able to spend Christmas with her 8-year-old son, Rayshawn, back in Burlington, Iowa.
Shaulis said that’s the ultimate goal, and that while the shelter welcomes families and puts on a warm holiday season, the real gift is when families can find permanent housing of their own.
“We see people at their absolute bottom, where they have no other support system,” Shaulis said. “We become the support system and family. I love seeing people grow, transition out of shelter. And they always come back and let us know how they’re doing. That’s what I love about it the most.”
Dixon said it’s the support system at Hope Haven that keeps her going. Her children understand the circumstances they’re in, she said, and yet they still got everything they wanted for Christmas last year, and she expects they will again, thanks to Santa.
“I just want to have a stable home for my children,” Dixon said. “My husband, their father, is in prison. I do everything on my own, and three years ago I was in a bad accident. I was shot four times. So it’s a blessing for me personally to be alive. I get depressed because I’m older, I should be more at a place where I’m comfortable. But I’m goofy. I’m still full of life.”