SALT LAKE CITY — Hundreds gathered in a merry and bright St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall for a Christmas meal of steak and pie on Tuesday, ringing in the event's 18th year.
Ahead of the dinner, more than 150 lined up in the misty, chilly air outside. Many wrapped scarves around their faces while they waited with their family members or pet dogs.
Inside, diners munched on complementary steak and sides of salad and vegetables as volunteers rushed by with plates of pie and other dinner guests streamed in.
Richard Turner, 71 reflected on his plans for the new year in between bites of corn and green beans. He plans to start his own business with an anticipated inheritance from his late grandfather, he said, but for now he is staying at The Road Home shelter next-door to the Salt Lake City dining hall operated by Catholic Community Services.
"I wouldn't call it home, but it's good when you don't have a home," he said. "Things will get better."
A Louisiana native, Turner arrived in the Beehive State ahead of the Utah Jazz and plans to stay so he doesn't have to weather more hurricanes, he said.
As he picked up a blanket and socks to help him stay cozy through the winter, Turner said the donated items and the dinner will help him get a leg up, but he doesn't plan to return next year.
"I'll be in Utah," he said, "but I'll have my own place."
The annual Christmas dinner has not always served steak. It began doing so in its fourth year, said Pamela Atkinson, a longtime advocate for Utah's homeless and the dinner's chief organizer. The idea to serve something other than ham or turkey was not her own, she said, but came about after she asked a group of homeless Utahns what they would like to dine on.
"One guy said, 'Hey, Pamela, what about a steak dinner?' Everyone laughed, and I thought, why not?" she recalled Tuesday. The dining hall's kitchen didn't have the capacity to grill them, so cooks at the Grand America Hotel have long prepared the meals with ingredients donated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she said.
Since the first dinner nearly two decades ago, Atkinson said Utah has made strides helping those facing homelessness by connecting them to housing and resources. But despite what she called "tremendous progress," the number of homeless and low-income Utahns attending the dinner has grown as an opioid epidemic has taken hold in the state and across the country.
A possible solution, she said, is more alternative housing in the Beehive State — dorm-style living with communal kitchens, alongside services to help rehabilitate those suffering from mental illness and drug addiction.
On Tuesday, she estimated, 800 to 900 people would be served by a team of six lead volunteers and dozens more helping to keep the kitchen and table service humming.
Her helpers included many who were younger than the event itself, and others with a higher profile, including Gail Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, and state Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.
Atkinson also recruited Karen Ackerlow and her family, who were helping to clean up plates, serve chocolate milk and set out fresh paper placemats.
"I thought this was a great opportunity for our family to serve somebody else and think of a little bit more than just Christmas gifts," Ackerlow said. Her son Gavin noted he was surprised by the friendliness of the diners.
"It's really fun," he chimed in.
Among those serving and bussing were Charles Dahlquist, of Oakley, and about two dozen of his children, grandchildren and relatives. The family has long had a tradition of volunteering at the dinner and "wouldn't be any place else," Dahlquist said as he passed trays of baked potatoes from the kitchen to a serving line.
He recalled failing to persuade his youngest daughter years ago that plating and serving Christmas dinner for others was a good idea. On the way home, he recounted, she asked why they hadn't always helped.
The dinner has also become a tradition for Pamela Zubia's family, who live on Salt Lake City's west side and ate together Tuesday evening before picking up a few donated items to help them make ends meet. The yearly event has been a help to her family, she said, but the Salt Lake Community College student is especially heartened to see those who don't have a home of their own share a hot meal in a warm room.
"That makes me really happy," Zubia said.