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On skid row, an abundance of food and festivity on Thanksgiving

Volunteers serve Thanksgiving brunch on skid row
Gail Modyman serves Hector Diaz during the annual Midnight Mission Thanksgiving brunch on skid row.
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Life on skid row often involves standing in one congested line after another. Los Angeles’ neediest stand and wait their turn for necessities others take for granted — a dry bed, fresh clothes, shelter or a hot meal.

But on Thanksgiving, under a brilliant, blue sky, while a rock band serenaded the crowd, thousands of homeless and near-homeless men, women and children expressed gratitude to just be able to sit.

Around them, in every direction, volunteers donning plastic aprons and hair nets bumped into each other in a bid to fill any vacant space with a helping of holiday staples, refill empty cups or offer another slice of pumpkin pie. For those who call skid row home, the annual Midnight Mission Thanksgiving brunch has become a welcome tradition that brings a festive, familial feel to the area, even if it’s only for a few hours.

Live music adds to the Thanksgiving festivity on skid row
Amber Lock moves to the music from a live band at the annual Midnight Mission Thanksgiving brunch.
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)
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“It makes me forget about all of this,” Michael Cromey, 47, said as he motioned to the pallets and tents that dotted the sidewalk.

Cromey said he lost his job producing music videos three months ago. He found solace at the men’s shelter and a community on skid row.

Against the backdrop of downtown’s skyscrapers, a city block was transformed into an open-air diner filled with live music and holiday cheer. Tables were draped in orange covers and an assortment of fresh roses. Carnations served as the centerpiece.

Larry Adamson, chief executive of the Midnight Mission, said the event serves more than food, nurturing the souls of those without family during the lonely holiday season.

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“You get to affect people’s lives and to make a difference when they have difficulty seeing that there’s anything for them,” he said. “That’s a meaningful gift and the greatest reward that you can have as a human being.”

Adamson announced that he plans to retire this year after serving as the organization’s head for 19 years.

“It’s time for the new generation and the new energy to take the agency and address homelessness even further than we’ve been able to,” he said.

About 500 volunteers gave up their Thanksgiving morning to serve people on the “lowest rung of our community ladder,” Adamson said. More were eager to help but the sign-up list at the Midnight Mission filled in August.

For sisters Tiffany and Wendy Nguyen, making the early-morning hourlong drive from Rialto to skid row has become a monthly ritual. They have been volunteering to help the homeless for a decade, a tradition passed on from their parents. But during the holidays, they feel their presence is needed even more.

“You don’t know what path they walked,” Tiffany Nguyen said as she poured soft drinks into foam cups. “It’s always good to give back.”

As everybody ate, actor Mr. T snaked through the crowd, offering hugs and posing for selfies. Nineteen-year-old Avion Reilly was chatting with fellow diner Larry Williams, 60, when he spotted the familiar face.

“Oh, that’s Mr. T,” Reilly exclaimed. The actor shoved a walkie-talkie key chain across the table. The packaging advertised “Mr. T in your pocket.” The toy blares the actor’s signature catch phrases, including his most popular “I pity the fool.”

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Reilly flipped the toy over in his hand. Mr. T’s autograph was scrawled in black marker.

“Look, he signed it!” Reilly said.

At another table, 52-year-old Stacy Potts savored the last forkful of food. A volunteer promptly arrived to dispose of her plate. Seconds later, another volunteer appeared with a plate piled high with turkey, candied yams, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and stuffing, offering Potts seconds.

“No more,” she said, patting her belly. “I’m full. Thank you.”

She and her husband, 46-year-old Delano Potts, live in subsidized housing nearby. Delano marveled at the Thanksgiving feast.

“There’s always a fight and hustle to get something to eat,” he said. “On a day that it comes to you, it’s a nice break.”

angel.jennings@latimes.com

Twitter: @AngelJennings

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