There was no holiday Annette Jones dreaded worse than Thanksgiving.
Growing up poor and frequently homeless in Los Angeles it powered an inner cyclone of despair, intensified by past familial trauma and pain. The holiday became a stark reminder of cold streets and colder people.
For Seattle native Cortez Charles, Thanksgiving at one time meant schoolyard gridiron gladiatorism with family and friends in the Turkey Bowl. His family’s annual football ritual eventually faded out, and so did Charles’ life prospects as he embraced gang life in the years ahead.
Occasionally homeless, the holiday was one more day in a whiplash of 365 that saw him post on street corners as a youth selling drugs, and exchange fire with rival gang members. But those days are long behind the 35-year-old father of four.
This Thanksgiving, in a South Seattle community, the two will be uplifting the holiday they once swore off.
This week, Charles will coordinate the fourth annual Turkey Bowl week, three days of community restitution for past deeds.
On Tuesday he joined community members and local youth giving away turkey-sandwich dinners and clothing donations to residents at the Othello Village homeless encampment. Wednesday will see a teen football game at Rainier Beach High School, with a community dinner to follow.
Thursday will be the heart of the week, when adults from around the community vie for flag-football supremacy in the Turkey Bowl at the same location.
Afterward, Charles is encouraging participants to attend the fifth annual Come Home celebration hosted by Jones, down the road at the Hillman City Collaboratory.
The feeling of Thanksgiving at home
“People need a place to be for Thanksgiving. Not just eat, but to be. Everyone has an idea of what going home for Thanksgiving means to them. I wanted to touch that and work with the community to create that feeling,” says Jones, 45, about her Come Home for Thanksgiving community potluck she is hosting Thursday in the Hillman City neighborhood.
The event, which runs from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., provides a full Thanksgiving meal of turkey, fresh vegetables, starches and dessert to those in need. And for the courageous, there’s a karaoke machine.
But unlike many Thanksgiving Day meal giveaways, where people are served and then hurried along — feeling more like statistics than humans — Jones sees Thursday as providing a temporary family for those whose only alternative is a cold sidewalk.
“The holiday season is that much tougher for homeless people,” says Javan Jones, Annette’s husband, who is serving as one of the chefs. “The city shuts down. Things are closed. Even the people who would normally give them 50 cents are out of town.”
That’s why instead of a drab, life-sucking atmosphere, Javan says anyone walking into the Collaboratory on Thursday will have their ears greeted by music, nostrils ambushed by “turkey funk,” be welcomed by a person genuinely concerned about their well-being, and a place where they can just be as they are, whoever they are.
It’s a standard of empathy forged from formerly being one of King County’s homeless population of more than 11,000, according to Jones.
“When we were homeless, we would get turkeys, but people didn’t care if we had a place to cook it or not,” she says of turkey giveaways she and Javan attended before finding stable housing in South King County.
Not only does Jones cook the turkeys, but she strategically chose to hold the event during the hours most shelters are closed. With public libraries and other commons frequented by the homeless closed for the holiday, they have limited options to avoid the cold.
For both Jones and her husband, Thursday is also a chance to return the favor to an area of the city that has held a special place in their hearts since they moved from Los Angeles in 2012. Upon moving to King County, the family of six originally wanted to steer clear of Seattle. It was “too city,” but they soon found it was where most of the resources were concentrated.
Landing in South Seattle, they soon discovered a part of town that was treated as “the forgotten child” of the Emerald City. For the poor and housing insecure, the distinction meant less of a reliance on local government and nonprofits and more on community.
“There’s a lot of assumptions made about people who are homeless including about them having no agency, and them being seen as less than or grifters,” says Jones, who adds that most homeless services don’t utilize the expertise and lived experience of those they’re claiming to serve. It’s why the Joneses run Jones Community Solutions, a small business offering services to the area’s homeless, informed by their experiences.
She adds that Thursday’s event is only possible because of the dozens of volunteers, several of them homeless, who have donated time, food and yes, even money.
“There are people who have donated us turkeys they’ve gotten from somewhere else, for us to cook and share and others who have said, ‘Hey here’s a dollar: It’s all I have but I want to make sure we can do the dinner this year,’ ” she says.
According to Jones, the onus on community dependence is indicative of an area with the highest percentage of the city’s poor and working class.
Cortez Charles co-signs 100 percent.
The mentality spurred him to revive the family tradition of the Turkey Bowl, started by his uncle Charles Sampson in 1977.
Keen to re-create exaggerated glory days of athletic dominance, the middle-aged would flood onto a vacant, mud-rich, high-school football field with teens and 20-somethings half their age. Along with the need for Epsom salt, the winners got a year’s worth of bragging rights.
Before turning to gang life, the bowl was one of the brightest spots in Charles’ childhood. It showcased generations uniting in common cause, albeit a recreational one. Nevertheless, its personal meaning is why Charles chose to make it a centerpiece of the fourth annual Turkey Bowl week.
Charles and his all-volunteer committee of community members, including Elizabeth Jones, Leonard Hicks, Paul Dervin and Allie Steinberg will serve meals, referee football games and gather to plan for next year.
“This whole week shows the youth in our community what we’re all capable of down here in the South End,” says Charles, who serves as a youth mentor at the Rainier Beach Community Center.
Such efforts are what Charles credits with his own life shift. A course others seem to be following.
“High-schoolers are actually asking to help out with the Turkey Bowl without asking for community-service hours. They just want to be a part of helping their community” says Hicks, who was on the Turkey Bowl week planning committee and will referee Thursday’s game.
The goodwill elicited by the Turkey Bowl during the last four years has become infectious, according to 13-year-old Cheyanne Hicks.
“People don’t have the majority of privileges that the rest of Seattle has. I want to put smiles on people’s faces so that the person I made smile can pass it around,” says Cheyanne, who helped make sandwiches Tuesday.
Ultimately however, both the Turkey Bowl and Come Home for Thanksgiving are about building and strengthening relationships in a community whose members are facing myriad challenges, including displacement and upheaval due to economic pressures.
“I wish people from around the city would really come down here and sit at the table and break bread with people at these events. Take off their titles and look at a person across the table as being of equal value to them, rich, poor, homeless, whatever,” says Dervin.
Sounding a similar note, Jones says the city’s affluent might do well to be privy to something she experiences every year at this time.
When she started her dinners there was a homeless man who would stand outside the window, peering at the spread and laughter inside.
Her husband would occasionally go out and take him blankets and food, and invite him in to join as Jones smiled and motion for him to step inside. She understood the mistrust he may have felt.
The same situation played out the next year, and the next, as the celebration grew, and more families rotated into the Collaboratory. More volunteers signed up to cook, clean up and help do dishes. The man still stayed outside.
The only thing Jones could do was continue to smile warmly and welcome him in every time he peered through the window.
Last year, the lone spectator finally came inside.
Moments like that are why Thanksgiving’s her favorite holiday.