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CHRISTMAS ’89: AMERICANS REACH OUT TO HOMELESS

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Children across America ripped open Christmas wrappings Monday, and gifts and cards poured into military hospitals for GIs wounded last week in the U.S. invasion of Panama.

But on the nation's streets, an estimated 720,000 of the country's 2 million homeless men, women and children spent the holiday without shelter, said Peter Smith, president of Partnership of the Homeless, a private shelter network in New York.Around the nation, many tried to make the holiday brighter for the homeless. In Los Angeles, Alex Trebek, host of the TV game show "Jeopardy," waited on tables at a shelter that expected to serve 5,000 meals.

"Hey, this isn't much," said Trebek. "We all should be doing more. We shouldn't have this problem in this rich country."

In Atlanta, 5,500 volunteers set tables and handed out gifts for 40,000 of the city's less fortunate residents.

And one Manhattan restaurant served meals to 45 homeless women and their children, who were also visited by a Santa bearing gifts.

"I know we're doing something small, but it's our personal start," said Michael Miele, co-owner of the Amsterdam Bar and Rotisserie.

Gifts and cards poured into military hospitals for the GIs in San Antonio, Texas; Fort Bragg, N.C.; and Fort Lewis, Wash.

At a supermarket in Clark, N.J., last-minute shoppers greeted the news of Panama strongman Manuel Noriega taking refuge in the residence of the Vatican's representative in Panama City. The news was announced over the store intercom.

"That's a nice Christmas present," said a checkout clerk. "Now let's hang him."

In a Cajun celebration more than two centuries old, residents of St. James Parish, La., upriver from New Orleans light bonfires shaped like wooden boats, fire trucks and medieval castles and tepees filled with kindling so Pere Noel - Father Noel - won't get lost in the dark on Christmas Eve.

In Wichita, Kan., a Vietnamese couple planned to spend Christmas with their 11-year-old son following a tearful reunion Saturday with the child they left behind when they fled their homeland 10 years ago.

When Quang Vu walked off an airplane and into a Wichita airport, his mother Anh Le clutched him to her chest and burst into tears. She last saw her son when he was 7 months old, before she and her husband, Tom Vu, escaped from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

"We'll talk, maybe tonight we won't sleep," Mrs. Vu said. "We feel a big relief. We don't have to worry anything about it anymore. We have more time to concentrate on our future."