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They won't be home for Christmas. But shelters for homeless are hoping to make a happy holiday for families

FOR Esmeralda Hern'andez, a young single mother who spent last Christmas in a shelter for homeless women, the prospect of a second Christmas with no place of her own filled her with sadness at first. But Ms. Hern'andez's eyes dance as she holds her seven-month-old son, Erling, in front of a huge Christmas tree that she and five other young mothers - all residents of a transitional housing program for homeless women and children - selected during a tree-buying outing the night before.

``I feel very happy I can help pick out a tree for our house,'' she says, showing Erling the lighted star that will top the 10-foot Scotch pine when the families finish decorating it.

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This tree-trimming party is one of more than half a dozen activities staff members here at Horizons have planned for residents during the holidays. It is also typical of events taking place this month in transitional homes and family shelters across the country. From caroling parties and gift exchanges to stockings and turkey dinners, the message that staff members and volunteers are sending to shelter families is this: Being without a home does not mean going without Christmas.

``For homeless people, there's always a sense of detachment around the holidays,'' says Tom Kiley, director of the Haight-Ashbury Family Shelter in San Francisco. ``They think, `I don't have any place to stay, I don't have any support in the community.' That's really what we try to promote here - a sense of familyness.''

To do that, Mr. Kiley and his staff ask children in the shelter to decorate the tree. They also invite residents of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to come for a tree-lighting party. A few days later, shelter residents go caroling ``to express their appreciation for the strong support from the neighborhood,'' Kiley says.

On Christmas Eve, the children will each receive nine or 10 presents. Eight local donors have supplied so many gifts - 700 - that some will be passed along to other needy families in the city.

Even more activities are under way at the Salvation Army Family Residence in Houston. Earlier this month two Girl Scout troops began the holidays with a craft class, helping children make ornaments they can keep.

Sunday evening, after weeks of rehearsals, a group of shelter residents took part in a play called ``Homelessness Is Not a Choice,'' at the University of Houston.

Last night, 50 employees of Allstate Insurance held a party at the shelter, supplying two gifts for each child. And tonight a Christian group that conducts regular Bible study classes for residents will present a program and distribute gifts.

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On Christmas Eve, each child will find two more packages under the tree. A photographer will take pictures of the event, which parents can keep as a memento of their Christmas at the shelter.

But if children are the primary focus of attention, they are not the only recipients of generosity. Here, as elsewhere, charitable groups also provide gifts for parents. As Evangeline Landress, director of the Houston shelter, explains, ``Many don't have any families - the single women particularly. What they get from us, that will be it.''

At the Boston Family Shelter, gift-giving takes a practical turn. ``We actually get a list from parents of sizes and of one important item that they and their children need, whether it be boots or coats,'' says Barbara Duffy, program director. ``For the adults it could be a set of dishes for when they move, or a winter jacket. It could also be a specific game the child wants that the parent can't afford to buy. When a group calls in and we know what they would like to do, we match it with a particular need.''

Maris Salinsky, director of Horizons, the transitional home run by the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, where Esmeralda Hern'andez lives, alerts donors to the need for ``culturally sensitive'' gifts.''

``The majority of our residents are black and Hispanic,'' she says. ``But last year we received a lot of dolls that were blond and blue-eyed.''

Whatever their specific needs, shelter staff members around the country express appreciation, even amazement, at the outpouring of money and gifts they receive from businesses, charities, and individuals.

``People are so generous at this time of year,'' says Sister Jane, administrator of the House of the Good Shepherd, a shelter for battered women and their children in Chicago. ``Sometimes I wish they'd spread it out a little, but they are so generous that there's much for us to distribute.''

In true ecumenical spirit, one of the charitable organizations helping Sister Jane's shelter is a Jewish women's group that buys individual gifts for each child.

And at the Haight-Ashbury shelter, San Francisco's only emergency shelter for families, Kiley says: ``People in the community seem to be becoming aware of what we do. I actually solicited none of the gifts we've received. One of our donors spent $2,094 on brand-new toys. You can't beat that.''

Yet gifts are far from the only need. Noting that the holidays are difficult for many of her residents, because they remember happier family Christmases, Sister Jane says, ``The mothers find it very scary to have to provide everything for the children themselves. So they need a lot of emotional support besides the gifts. We do a lot of extra visiting with them during the holidays.''

Just how important all this caring and generosity can be is evident in the experience of Hern'andez.

``Last Christmas I was very, very sad,'' she says, recalling the six weeks she lived in a family shelter. ``It was my first time to be without my family. But we had a nice time at the shelter. And on Christmas Day everybody cooked. We made our own party.''

Tonight, Hern'andez and the other mothers at Horizons will hold a grab bag party. On Christmas Eve they will hang stockings for the children, and on Christmas Day they will cook a holiday dinner.

Still, transitional housing or a family shelter, however much of a haven it represents, is not a home of one's own. As Hern'andez and a resident who asks to be identified only by her first name, Milagros, relax by the tree in the temporary quarters they gratefully consider home this holiday season, they talk about their hopes for next Christmas.

Milagros, who has just completed a 10-month carpentry course and is working for a small construction company, glances at her two-year-old daughter and says, ``I want Sharyl to be in a nice environment. I just hope we can be in a place of our own and be happy.''

Esmeralda nods. Then she turns wistful as she shares her own dream for Christmas '89.

``I want to have a job and be independent,'' she says, echoing the hopes that are expressed by homeless parents everywhere. ``And I want to have my own apartment, with two bedrooms - one for me and one for my baby.''

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