Joleah Smith danced around one of Haven for Hope’s courtyards trailing a red paper streamer behind her, selected from the many streamers and paper confetti scattered across the ground. She joined hundreds of others for the shelter’s annual Ho Ho Hope for the Holidays Dinner on Thursday. 

The 3-year-old loved seeing Santa Claus the most, her mom Laura Smith said. The two have been residents at the city’s largest homeless assistance shelter for about a month and a half now. Smith said she wanted to make sure Joleah could celebrate Christmas in some way.

“We have to be here Christmas Day,” Smith said. “I usually come [back to Haven for Hope] at nighttime before 7, but I came early today to see Santa Claus and the Grinch.”

Every year, Haven for Hope residents can count on a hearty Christmas dinner and lots of holiday cheer with the annual Ho Ho Hope for the Holidays celebration hosted by NuStar Energy, whose founding chairman Bill Greehey also founded Haven for Hope. During the coronavirus pandemic, however, the nonprofit organization has had to pivot its celebrations to accommodate public health guidelines. Instead of everyone congregating in a big tent for a Christmas party, residents lined up outside one of the campus cafeterias, using red tape on the concrete or spray-painted white squares on the grass as their social distancing markers.

Haven for Hope residents line up for the annual dinner using socially distant markers as a guide. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Smith and her daughter are two of approximately 700 residents at Haven for Hope; the organization is housing another 300 at a hotel downtown. Before the pandemic, the shelter could accommodate close to 1,000 people on its campus, but the organization had to scale back its maximum capacity with the pandemic. President and CEO Kenny Wilson said demand for shelter has decreased, too.

“We know, as people tell us this, during coronavirus, we’re seeing evidence of more people staying with friends, relatives, cousins,” Wilson said. “People are being more generous now about that. [But] we know typically that doesn’t last very long. We’ve had families come here that say I was living with my uncle, that situation wore out, we had to leave.”

Because of that, “we expect our numbers to go up a lot in the first quarter of next year,” Wilson said.

Haven for Hope residents share a socially distant holiday meal and took family Christmas photos under a tree. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The nonprofit has been considering ways to accommodate more people in 2021, Wilson said. One of the lessons learned from the pandemic was how well using a hotel to shelter people worked. While the City pays for the actual rooms, Haven for Hope pays for staff and overhead to provide services to those residents, Wilson said.

Haven for Hope’s 2020 budget was $24 million, including unplanned-for coronavirus items, Wilson said. Despite spending between $1.5 million and $2 million more than expected on COVID-related expenses, Wilson said donors have been generous throughout the pandemic.

“One example … because of the school situation, we had to get WiFi in the dorm rooms for the kids,” Wilson said. “That wasn’t in the budget. We sent out an email appeal and within minutes, we had the money raised. We had four people call and say, ‘We’ll pay for the whole thing’ and to be able to say, ‘Sorry, it’s already subscribed’ was a really good feeling.”

On Thursday, Haven for Hope staff served residents a traditional holiday meal of turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, rolls, and apple pie in the cafeteria, which had 21 tables covered in red and green tablecloths. Joleah and the other children had the option of chicken strips instead of turkey. Residents at the hotel downtown would also be getting a Christmas dinner and a visit from Santa and the Grinch, Wilson said.

Before dinner, residents watched a small parade of three cars carrying elves, the Grinch, and Santa Claus – who was driven by Bill Greehey himself – roll through the Haven for Hope campus. Kids screamed with delight when confetti guns popped and eagerly took candy canes handed out by staff. Tucked away in a room to the side, four people sorted through Christmas stockings stuffed with age-appropriate gifts for the campus’s children. 

Haven for Hope founder Bill Greehey drives Santa Claus through the campus. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“The parade and vehicles and Santa – it was special,” Wilson said. “I didn’t watch Santa so much. I watched the children and their faces, and the children were really telling – that it was a successful evening.”

NuStar Energy, the Greehey Family Foundation, and Kenny Wilson are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here. For a list of individual members, click here.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.