Sharon Bunce, 64, smiled peacefully as she sat with friends enjoying a free helping of ham, green beans and mashed potatoes at Chronis' Restaurant on Christmas.
With no family around, and not much money to live on, the Vancouver restaurant's annual tradition of providing meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas has become a warm, welcome place to get in the holiday spirit, she said.
“Lady Rose” sings at the Chronis’ Christmas meal.
"If you come in here you better be hungry, because you get filled up," Bunce said. "It's a homey atmosphere. It feels like a family."
Bunce was living in Esther Short Park until a few months ago when "the sprinklers ran me off," she said.
After more than 30 years working at Columbia Sportswear in Portland, her Social Security just wasn't enough to pay for an apartment, and she ended up on the streets a few years ago.
"You just kind of drift where you can," she said with a shrug.
But things improved for Bunce after her run-in with the Esther Short Park sprinkler system. She finally got an open spot in the Columbia House Apartments for seniors this fall, so she now has a warm place to sleep.
Still, the fixed income makes it hard to afford food and other needed items, so when volunteers at Chronis' came by to hand out some warm clothing and a tarp, she gladly accepted.
"They hand out stuff that's really useful, like a tarp to put on the cold ground when you're sitting outside, a hat, a scarf," Bunce said. "I'm just so thankful. A lot of people don't have what I have."
With a solid downpour Christmas morning, the crowd at Chronis' wasn't huge — perhaps 30 people at a time passed in and out of the establishment.
Chuck Chronis, the owner, typically drives around on the holidays inviting people on the streets to come by for a free meal, but he didn't see many folks out there, he said.
"I always make little runs, I drive and tell people 'there's a free Christmas dinner at Ninth and Main streets,'" Chronis said. "I hardly saw anybody. There were maybe three people. It's probably the rain."
The restaurant generally has enough food for about 700 people. Whatever's left over goes to local charities. The meal typically costs between $3,000 and $4,000, Chronis said.
"We don't write it off," he added. "That's not the reason we do this."
Maria L., who goes by the street name "Lady Rose" and didn't want her last name used, said with the tough economic times the meal and the company at Chronis' were uplifting.
The 60-year-old wandered through the group singing songs she wrote to anybody who asked.
Maria lives with her boyfriend in a homeless camp in Jantzen Beach, she said.
"It's a pretty nice camp," she said. "It's dry. We can have a campfire. My man and I have each other and that's more than other people here have."
She became homeless in 1989 after a divorce. She was a housewife before that and didn't develop many job skills, she said.
"It's difficult," Maria said. "I put over 300 job applications out since July. Nobody's going to hire me. I'm 60 years old."
While visitors came and went, volunteers at the restaurant greeted them and asked what they needed. Some were given sleeping bags or camping mats. Others got gloves, hats or scarves. And everybody got food and pie for dessert.
Theresa Gray, 37, said it was great to feel so at home for the holiday. She became homeless in October due to a domestic violence situation, she said.
She was a teacher's assistant before her boyfriend kicked her out of the trailer that the two owned together, she said.
"I can't go back," she said.
She briefly lived in Esther Short Park and made friends with the homeless community there. People try to look out for each other, she said.
"In Esther Short Park, I like to say the stage is our front room, the gazebo is our second front room and the porches (on Slocum House) are our first and second bedroom," Gray said.
After getting kicked out of the park by police a few times, she moved on. In the past few months she's lived in the Jantzen Beach tunnel, a cemetery, and she's currently living in the back seat of a car, she said.
"The owner of the car, they let me come in the house and shower," she said. "If my mother was alive I wouldn't be in this situation. But she left us (died) in 2009."
It's hard to get into a shelter as a single woman with no kids, she added.
Giving the homeless and those with little to live on a little cheer and some hope is the whole purpose of the free meal, said Chronis and Clark County Judge Rich Melnick, who's been helping out for the 30 years that the restaurant has been offering the meals.
"Everyone focuses on the numbers," said Melnick, who works the food line each year. "But if you only serve one person who needs it, that's enough of a reason to do this."
It's also important for folks out there to know that, despite the hardships they face, people do matter, Chronis said.
"You've got to care about people," Chronis said. "You wish every one a Merry Christmas and make every one feel like they're welcome. That's so important."
That's something Bunce really appreciates, she said.
"People are out there (on the streets) because they can't afford much, and it's tough," Bunce said. "It's nice to know that people really care."