More than 4,000 people were invited in off the streets of Skid Row on Saturday to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving meal at Union Rescue Mission.
The 800-bed shelter hosts the feast each year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving to provide a free, home-like dining experience and sense of belonging for people living on the streets of downtown Los Angeles.
Many guests are estranged from their families, and the holidays can be a painful reminder of their isolation, said Walter Seetal, a chaplain for the Christian nonprofit.
"This is how we let them know that people do care," he said.
The shelter was decked out Saturday like a family dining room, with round tables draped with red tablecloths, and mason jar centerpieces, orange balloons and place mats.
Shortly after 11 a.m., guests began filing in from the crowded sidewalk of San Pedro Street.
Volunteers worked the kitchen, dining area and a phalanx of serving trays, filling plates with turkey and gravy, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, macaroni and cheese and other favorites. About 500 turkeys were deep-fried for the occasion, which drew some 300 volunteers.
Claudia Rivera, 41, who has been homeless for three months and is living in a tent on nearby Wall Street, waited in line for three hours for her meal.
"I'm so glad to be here," she said as she sat down to eat. "Thanksgiving is what you make it."
Once the guests finished eating, they proceeded to a second room, where volunteers handed them boxes of candy, pecan tarts and peach cobbler before sending them on their way.
Stephanie White had a special appreciation for the feast because Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday.
For the last month, White, 39, has been living with her 17-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter at the Union Rescue Mission as she tries to cope with losing her home and her job after working 20 years in the mortgage industry. It is the family's first time at a homeless shelter.
Though the mission is helping her search for work and get her life back on track, she said, it has been difficult being on Skid Row. Homelessness and drug addiction are everywhere, making it difficult to be hopeful about the future.
"Today, with the doors wide open, everybody is looked at as a human being. There are a lot of volunteers and a lot more smiles," she said. "It feels like there is a light at the end of the tunnel."
The experience is also uplifting for volunteers, said Felicitas Anijielo, 16, a Diamond Bar High School junior who worked in the shelter's kitchen Saturday, cutting cake and emptying cans of cranberry sauce into serving trays.
"Everyone is here just to make a small difference," Anijielo said. "To make someone smile and make sure they have an amazing Thanksgiving, regardless of their situation."