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In Camden, Christmas comes early for some

Covenant House, a nonprofit that helps young adults on the verge of homelessness, spread a little holiday cheer in the downtrodden city.

Mandi Cruz, left, who works at the Camden Covenant House, helps Jonathan Roque, 1, open a present during a Christmas party for the Covenant House at the Reggae Grill in Camden, NJ on December 18,  2014.  ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )
Mandi Cruz, left, who works at the Camden Covenant House, helps Jonathan Roque, 1, open a present during a Christmas party for the Covenant House at the Reggae Grill in Camden, NJ on December 18, 2014. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )Read moreDavid Maialetti

THE CALENDAR can sting for some in Camden, on birthdays with no cakes, Thanksgivings without turkey, or a cold day in December called Christmas that mostly just feels like another Thursday.

On some days, though, the calendar can surprise, as it did Dec. 18, when Christmas came early for about two dozen young adults and kids sitting inside a Caribbean restaurant on Federal Street, thanks to a local nonprofit and sacks of donations.

Toddlers were bouncing off one another inside the Reggae Grill, and mothers held babies on their hips with one hand while carrying heaping containers of curry oxtail or jerk chicken back to their tables with the other.

Presents were piled in the corners, some for the mothers and others for their children, but the entire afternoon felt like a gift, they said, a break from the worries all those other days bring.

"It kind of takes the weight off me a little, as a mother," said Bridgette Smith, 19, of East Camden.

The Christmas party was held by Covenant House, a nonprofit that provides services to the homeless and "almost-homeless" between ages 18 and 22. It's a difficult age span, Covenant House employees said, because many aren't prepared for adulthood, even if they've become parents themselves, and if they're still living at home, they often are seen as a financial burden to their families.

"They're one step away from homelessness," said Mandi Cruz, service manager for Camden's Covenant House, which is on the same block as the restaurant. "There's no handbook you get when you're homeless, either, and that's where we come in. Most of the time, it's small stuff like hygiene kits or help with getting a GED or bus tickets."

Shaffon Herbert, 22, of Camden, was thinking about transportation and her job at Macy's during the party as she tried in vain to feed her two young sons without spilling rice. Herbert doesn't have a car and said she expected to lose her job at the Cherry Hill Mall because she couldn't coordinate day care and transportation.

Sometimes she takes the bus and sometimes her mother takes her. Sometimes she can't coordinate it all and has to skip work.

"I'll have to find another job, maybe something closer," she said. "I'll do anything."

Herbert said she didn't have a Christmas tree at home because she feared that her sons would "tear it down" but she didn't really have much to put underneath it before the party anyway.

"Now I don't have to tell my kids that Santa isn't coming to town," she said, picking rice off one boy's lap. "It feels good. I've been dealing with a lot, and it helps to see them smile."

In Camden County's point-in-time homeless survey of Jan. 28, a total of 654 people identified themselves as "experiencing homelessness." That number, according to Monarch Housing Associates, has been trending downward for five years. The survey defined "unsheltered" as spending nights in places not meant for sleeping: cars, parks, abandoned buildings.

Aurelio Rodriguez, an outreach worker with Covenant, said some of the young people he finds on the streets have trouble even realizing they're homeless.

"I'm the guy who gets the conversations started out there," he said. "They'll say, 'Nah, I'm not homeless. I'm couch-surfing,' but they don't realize that's being homeless."

The majority of those found in the survey were adults age 25 to 64, and Covenant House thinks it plays a crucial role in trying to prevent younger adults from becoming more permanently homeless as they get older.

"We ask them where you see yourself in five years, and it can get overwhelming," Rodriguez said. "So we have small events like this to celebrate the small successes."

After lunch, everyone dug into their presents, trying on new scarves and adjusting the straps of stiff, new backpacks. For the adults, the gifts were practical: pajamas, jackets, pens.

Yolanda Phillips, 18, held her 4-month-old daughter, Lay'ani, in her lap while her daughter Za'niya, 4, danced around the room with a new stuffed animal, her hair beads swinging out.

Phillips said she could see herself returning in five years as a different person.

"They are helping me here to set up a plan and go back to school," she said, rocking the baby in her arm. "Hopefully, I can come back here and help someone else someday."