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Mike Terry, Deseret Morning News
Volunteer Brinley Bywater helps serve dinner at a Christmas Eve party for the needy at the Salt Lake City Mission.

A spirit of doing "for the least of these my brethren" was contagious on Christmas Eve at emergency shelters in Salt Lake on Monday.

The first of a two-day Christmas celebration got under way at the Salt Lake City Mission with more than enough ham, yams, pudding and good cheer for everyone.

Those in need and those needing to give turned out for the event, coming by car and bus from across northern Utah to the Christian Life Center at 10th North and Redwood Road.

The banquet of food, games, prizes and giveaways — including new toys for children — is set to start all over again today at 8 a.m. and continues until 4:30. Everyone is welcome to today's events, and transportation is being provided by Lewis Brothers Stage Coach Co.

Philip Arena, mission director, said Jesus' teachings in the Bible on helping others seem to have struck a chord.

While more and more people are in need of help, there has been a near-equal increase in the number of people showing up the past few weeks willing to do a little more.

At the Road Home on Monday, there was a celebration of a different sort, but no less festive. Donation delivery and pick-up was the conclusion of a weeklong, radio-based annual fund-rasing event.

By mid-afternoon, the shelter had raised $591,000. Doing more for more is a given nowadays, said executive director Matt Minkevitch, noting that housing has become critical, particularly with Salt Lake running at a 0 percent vacancy rate.

"If people lose housing, it's really tough to find temporary housing and many are turning to the shelter," he said.

The shelter does its best to foster the spirit of Christmas — featuring on Monday a well-known figure of modern Christmas who knows a thing or two about giving and getting: Santa Claus.

At 3:15 p.m., it was snowing sideways outside the shelter, but inside, the Jolly Old Elf was getting what he wants for Christmas: hugs by the hundreds.

Those who somehow get along but go without are world-class huggers, Santa says, noting that a hug is the one gift that is as good to receive as it is to give. "And the very ones who have the least are time and again the most generous."

He looks over his little reading glasses and takes in the bustle for a moment and says, "I've been doing a lot of things for a long time and I've been very fortunate to share a lot of things with a lot of people. But outside my own family, this is the best thing I ever do."

And the best part of the best thing Santa does, he adds, "is that anyone can get in on it, and you can do it all year long. All you have to do is be willing."

All kinds of people from all across the state were willing Monday. A group of about 30 people from an LDS Church ward in Orem that shall remain anonymous at their request, was part of nearly constant stream of donors who lined up along Rio Grande Street to give to the shelter. The Orem group rolled up with five truckloads worth of goods, including 350 blankets and 600 pairs of socks.

About 900 people — including 37 families — this morning will have found food, shelter and some space out of the bad weather and worse life circumstances that have led them there.

"Thank you" is all person after person wanted to say as they accepted donations and headed for what 90 percent of the time will be a one-time stay at the shelter. Most are not chronically homeless and many more are families, with carsand other possessions but no roof over their head.

So many more families are in need of emergency shelter and food this year that The Road Home had to reverse the percentage of single men and families at its site in Midvale. It's normally 60 percent men and 40 percent families.

Shelters and food banks all over the city and across the state are reporting the same trends.

"Fortunately, we've started to make some real progress in helping people transition into lives that they want," he said.

"From that vantage point, all I can say today is thank you," he said. "The vast majority of these folks are people who have fallen out of their lives for a minute. And this community is adding optimism and a little joy in their lives by knowing that the community is here and believes they are worthwhile. It takes a lot of hard work by a lot of people, but it's nothing short of a joy to be around."

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