ELKHART, Ind. — It’s not going to be the same old Christmas in Elkhart County, that’s for sure.
Instead of exchanging gifts, Frank Hartman and his family — the adults anyway — have resolved to make donations to charity because there’s so much need. And Luis Tirado, recently laid off, is relying on charitable groups for the first time to make sure there are a few presents for the kids under the Christmas tree at his Elkhart home.
Unemployment, layoffs and home foreclosures have some of the hardest-hit people in the county wondering: Christmas cheer? What Christmas cheer?
“Just another day,” said Todd, an unemployed man eating the free lunch offered daily at the Faith Mission soup kitchen. He didn’t want to give his last name. “I don’t know how to explain it. (Christmas is) just another day.”
That doesn’t mean the holiday season has gone missing in action. People are finding glimmers of hope, even as they wrestle with the shaky economy.
“I’ve been hit,” said Ivy Hunt of Elkhart, taking a breather from Christmas shopping at the Concord Mall. “I lost my job. Unemployment has run out — add that to the list. But I’m still making it. I’m still in the Christmas spirit because it’s all about what Jesus did for us. It’s (about) what God gave to us.”
The unemployment rate in Elkhart County is around 15 percent, well above the national average, and the northern Indiana region's economy has been decimated by the sharp downturn in the RV industry, a mainstay of the local economy.
Evicted twice in 12 months
Dean and Christina Newell are sitting in the common area of the small wing of Faith Mission that houses homeless families. This was their home until Faith Mission found an apartment for them through the agency’s transitional housing program.
“We’ve been evicted out of two homes in the last 12 months,” says Dean.
He’s been able to maintain his job working the graveyard shift at an Elkhart warehouse, fortunately. But Christina lost hers, and some lingering debt issues came back to take a big bite out of their finances. Then came the note from the landlord on the front door of their rental last July after they’d missed a few payments: “Start packing clothes.”
“Slept out in the car for a while,” Christina says. There was also a stint at a fleabag South Bend motel — a policeman was killed there in 2007 — and being separated from 12-year-old daughter Joan, who temporarily moved in with a grown brother.
They moved into the Faith Mission shelter last August, took some financial management classes and are now in the transitional apartment.
Christina remembers her terror during Christmas 2008, when things were bad and getting worse, wondering how she’d get Joan a present.
Dean, a Bible from a study session earlier in the morning sitting on his lap, chimes in. “A lot of people have that feeling — I don’t have the money, why do I even worry about Christmas?”
Now Christina is looking forward to making Christmas fudge and cookies with Joan. It’s hardly just material things, though. Through it all, the family managed to stick together, something Joan always points out when her mother gets down in the dumps.
“She goes, ‘Mom, remember we’re together,’” says Christina. “‘Remember when we weren’t together? Remember when you were in the motel?’”
No Christmas lights
Roy Robinson, an unemployed construction worker, didn’t put up outside Christmas lights this year.
Likewise, it’s hard to deal with all the commercialism that comes with the season, especially now that finances are so tight. “It’s crazy. Kids want $200 gifts and five of them,” says the father of two.
Accordingly, the 15 or so adults in his family are each going to buy one present and then exchange and trade them among themselves. Everyone will get a gift, but they’ll be spared the expense of getting each and every family member something.
Next to him at Double D’s, a Goshen bar decked out in Christmas lights that caters to a working-class crowd, Hartman says his family also has a strategy to deal with the expense of the season. Instead of buying each other presents, the grown-ups will donate what they would have spent to charity, maybe a food bank.
“You can buy a lot of food for $20, $30, $40,” says Hartman, let go after 31 years with a concrete mixing company and now reliant on the income his wife’s job brings.
The little ones in the family will be spared — there's a little money for gifts for them.
“You don’t want to tell them Santa Claus doesn’t exist,” says Hartman. “Not yet, anyway.”
No lights, no gas
George — he didn’t give his last name — doesn’t have utilities at his house. No lights, no gas for heat. A neighbor lets him fill up a bucket of water every now and again, and he gets a free lunch each day at Faith Mission, where he’s now sitting, eating beef stroganoff.
“It’s not about Christmas,” says the single man, who last worked at a fiberglass manufacturer but has been out of work for two years. “It’s about being alive another day. Every day you wake up above the ground is a good day.”
He piles six blankets on top of himself each night to ward off the cold and spends the day in the public library. Maybe he’ll go with a brother to Chicago for Christmas, visit his parents there.
‘Not a time to be pessimistic’
Hunt, a day-care worker, has been without a job for nearly two years despite her best efforts and worries that being in her 40s, she'll be at a disadvantage to younger job-seekers. Still, she’s adamant in affirming her Christmas cheer.
“I want that to be underlined,” she says from a bench at Concord Mall, piped-in Christmas music sounding around her. “I won’t let that discourage me. It’s not a time to be pessimistic.”
She’s even been helping out a 28-year-old friend who’s also out of work — there’s always somebody who’s worse off — and scraped together enough to buy at least a few Christmas presents. She pulls out one of her purchases, a bath set she got at a discount store for a niece, contrasting it with a higher-priced version available at a high-end shop.
Her niece “won’t know the difference when I take this off,” she says, pointing to the $3 price tag.
‘Always someone to help’
It’s a cold, gray Sunday morning outside St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Elkhart. Mexican and Mexican-American members of the Catholic community are gathering for a procession to St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Parish to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Catholics from Mexico.
While the annual event isn’t a Christmas activity per se, it comes during the holiday season, and you won’t find down faces among the crowd.
“I think they have more faith,” says Angel Martinez, sporting a big-brimmed mariachi hat and a long gray braid. “People become more united when it’s rough times.”
Tirado, who recently lost his job and will be getting help purchasing presents for his kids, knows the recession has hit the local Hispanic community hard. Some people have even returned to Mexico. But like Martinez, he doesn’t see the Christmas spirit taking a beating.
“There’s always someone to help out,” he says.
Similarly, Lupita Zepeda, a procession organizer like Tirado, notes that questions of finance — while not to be scoffed at — are secondary.
“Generally I think we are spoiled here,” she says, contrasting the stronger buying power of Mexican immigrants here compared to their counterparts back in Mexico. “We have to take into account that Christmas is meant to receive Jesus and show the love to one another that we should.”
Tim Vandenack, a reporter for The Elkhart Truth, can be reached at email@example.com.