In downtown Los Angeles, a man who calls himself Stickshift grinned while surveying a crowd feasting on plates of turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and green beans.
"You might be feeling down in the dumps, but days like this prove there are people out there who care," he said.
Stickshift, who spends nights at several different shelters, had arrived Thursday to enjoy the Midnight Mission's annual Thanksgiving festivities. As music blared from the soundstage, he and hundreds of other attendees were served at tables set up in the middle of 6th Street near San Pedro Street.
Similar celebrations took place across the region. At Pasadena's Central Park, several thousand gathered for a meal hosted by Union Station Homeless Services. On skid row, Fred Jordan Missions had more than a ton of giant turkey legs to feed homeless and working-class families. Outside Honda Center, members of the Anaheim Ducks hockey team helped serve turkey and stuffing to thousands. And Pink Taco on the Sunset Strip welcomed about 400 current and former clients of PATH, a nonprofit working to end homelessness, for a traditional meal.
Those who made their way to the Midnight Mission found themselves dining at tables adorned with roses and daisies. Among them was 28-year-old Marilyn Mendoza. She and her family had left the cramped South Los Angeles home they share with four others and arrived downtown in hopes of marking the holiday with a special meal. Her husband cradled their 6-week-old son as he scraped up the last of his pumpkin pie. "Delicious," he announced. Their 3-year-old son, Ernie, agreed.
"For me, it's great because I already have to cook enough," Mendoza said. The event had lifted her spirits, she said. "It feels like Christmas!"
Expecting to serve more than 2,000 people by the end of the day, the mission had prepared 2,000 pounds of turkey, 800 pounds of stuffing and 900 sweet potato pies.
"We have enough gravy to cover New York City," joked Larry Adamson, the mission's president and chief executive.
The mission, which will celebrate its centennial in December, has served more than 50 million meals since it opened in 1914. Its holiday events, however, tend to be the most significant.
"It's so easy for us to walk down the street and see homeless people and not think about them as somebody's child, mother or father," Adamson said. "Thanksgiving is one of those days where we're able to reconnect with them and really rekindle a human spirit."
It's also a day that draws the largest number of volunteers. Nearly 3,000 people requested to help the Midnight Mission serve food on Thursday, but there was only room for about 500.
Volunteer Sheila Lee walked around with trays of food to see if anyone needed second or third helpings. The 29-year-old, a junior processor at a mortgage company, had trekked up from Tustin that morning.
"It's a tough time to not have family or food," she said. "I wanted to show an example that giving is better than receiving and that it's amazing to help just one day be better."
Lee brought her 16-year-old sister who was enjoying passing out soda and pie. "It's fun — I like to see how people react to others caring for them," Christine Manalily said. "I've been given so much it feels like I need to give back."
For Anthony Thomas, the volunteers who cheerily served him added to his merry mood. "The music, food, people — it's all wonderful and you couldn't ask for a better day," he said.
The 62-year-old said he once earned a six-figure salary and owned a home in Redondo Beach while working for the satellite division of Hughes Aircraft Company. After two decades, he was laid off in 2001.
"Everything just came crashing down," he said. "I went everywhere trying to find a job."
Since then, Thomas has lived at a downtown hotel. He never married after his fiancée was killed in a car accident and he has no family in the area. "I try to keep busy to keep the depression down," he said.
He appears at the mission every Thanksgiving, grateful for the hearty meal and the warm welcome.