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Santa, Mrs. Claus deliver spirt of christmas to shelter residents


Santa Claus came bounding into the YWCA's homeless shelter yesterday to the delighted applause of the children gathered there. He ho-ho-hoed and wished everyone a Merry Christmas. He handed out presents to one and all. And then he thrust his visage -- smiling, and bearded and brimming with holiday warmth -- into the pretty face of 1-year-old Shahana.

Shahana screamed a scream that likely shattered all the glass in the North Pole.

Well, this is the real world, and in the real world Santa Claus is sometimes a terrifying figure to youngsters. And in the real world, children sometimes don't have homes of their own on Christmas Eve or other days of the year.

Lessening the impact of that sad reality has been the focus of activities during this holiday season at the Eleanor D. Corner House Shelter at the YWCA, 128 W. Franklin St. With the help of an unprecedented number of Christmastime donations and the relentless good cheer of the staff, by yesterday the effort largely seemed a success.

"I'm used to being in my own house and cooking and trimming my own tree," said Dina Floyd, who with her two sons, ages 8 and 5, has been in the shelter since early October, when the sale of her house and a rent increase deprived her of a home. "But every day, someone's been coming here caroling or with gifts for the children."

Yesterday's visit by Santa, like so many of the others, came out of theblue. Last week, Jennifer Vitale called Sheila Matthews, the shelter's director, and asked if she and her husband, James, could dress up as Santa and Mrs. Claus and give out gifts.

Mr. Vitale is the president of Jason Pharmaceuticals in Owings Mills and a trustee of the Anita V. Vitale Foundation, named for his late mother and established to help homeless mothers and children.

Jennifer, owner of a travel agency in Timonium, is a member of People Aiding the Homeless (PATH). Married in May, the couple decided to make their appearance at the shelter yesterday a Christmas gift to each other.

"This is our first Christmas together, and we just wanted to make sure that we keep in mind what Christmas is all about," said Mrs. Vitale, wearing a red stocking cap with pom-pom, as she handed out gym bags filled with sweat suits to all the children and mothers.

"Where are your reindeer?" one boy asked Santa.

"I left them at home," Santa said. "They were tired and I wanted them to rest up for tonight."

"Your beard's fake," said 5-year old Brandon Lane.

Santa pretended not to hear.

The YWCA's sixth floor, dedicated to homeless families, can accommodate up to 48 people. It is forever full, Ms. Matthews said. The fifth floor can house 20 homeless women.

Elsewhere in the building is the baby shelter, currently home to 16 preschoolers who have been taken from their parents because of emotional or physical neglect.

Ms. Matthews said a number of the mothers will be able to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas with family members in Baltimore. Others, like Shahana and her mother, Deedee Ford, have no place to go and were planning to remain at the shelter last night for a Christmas Eve turkey dinner.

Ms. Ford, 23, and Shahana have lived in a single room on the YWCA's sixth floor for about two weeks, ever since Ms. Ford and her female roommate had a disagreement and she was forced to move out. Ms. Ford, a graduate of Southwestern High School, is hoping to move into more permanent housing where she intends to open a day-care center to support herself. In the meantime, she said she has been assured she can stay at the shelter.

Despite the holiday festivities around her, Ms. Ford said she hadn't handled her first few days at the shelter very well. Then, she said, a counselor suggested that her own depression was probably contributing to Shahana's crabbiness.

"I noticed that the way I feel is the way she feels," Ms. Ford said. "At first I was sad, but Miss Matthews and all these people show you all their love and you have all these people coming in with all their donations and singing songs and all."

Yesterday, whenever Santa didn't hover too close, Shahana was in high spirits, giggling with her mother and the other children.

Through donations during the holidays she has received an elephant on wheels, building blocks, white satin shoes, clothes "and more teddy bears than I can name," Ms.Ford said.

Because the shelter takes care of all her food, toiletry and diaper needs, Ms. Ford said she was able to save her own money for toys for Shahana.

Will Ms. Ford receive anything herself this Christmas?

"I got my gift already," she said as she darted off after her disappearing daughter. "Shahana started walking last week."

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