Chiffon Keys-McKoy is trying to keep her family’s holiday traditions alive, even if they’re no longer in their own home.
The single mom and her three sons are celebrating Thanksgiving at a shelter for the first time this year, the Jennie Clarke Residence on E. 100th St.
For Keys-McKoy and her boys, the holiday season means finding something to be thankful for, even when times are tough.
They’re just like the 114,000 other homeless kids enrolled in city schools, searching for light in a dark place.
“We were in our own home last year,” said Keys-McKoy, 49, who shares a three-bedroom apartment at Jennie Clarke with her kids.
“But you know something? Thanksgiving is approaching and it is the same thing. We’re just not up under our own roof.”
The six-story East Harlem shelter occupies three adjacent tenements and is home to 73 families — 156 kids and 95 adults in all.
Though they share a common thread of homelessness, each resident has a unique reason to feel lost or hopeful this Thanksgiving.
On Thursday the shelter’s management WIN threw an early holiday party where smiles of happiness were prevalent along with the cheerful chatter of families enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner.
Keys-McKoy landed in Jennie Clarke in August after her injuries from a bad car crash cost her a job and then her apartment.
But the former minister is thankful to have a place to stay and celebrate the holidays.
Keys-McKoy was a supermarket manager and crossing guard living in Reading, Pa., when, on a church trip to Brooklyn in the summer of 2017, the van she was riding in was struck by another vehicle while stopped at a light.
“I hit my head on the dashboard, which broke the window,” Keys-McKoy said. “I was knocked out. Lost consciousness.”
Neurological injuries affected her balance and brain and Keys-McKoy had to quit her jobs.
“I had to resign from the injuries at both positions,” she said. “As a crossing guard you have to stand, and I was having severe headaches and dizziness.”
She moved to Brooklyn with her husband and children to live with her mother-in-law, but with five people in a single room the situation didn’t last, leading the family to the Jennie Clarke Residence.
“I am raising a 9-year-old boy with autism,” Keys-McKoy said of her middle child, Jeryimah, who attends the Mickey Mantle School on the Upper West Side.
“It’s kinda hard to keep an autistic child to one room,” she added.
But soon, her husband ended up leaving the shelter to stay alone with his mom.
Despite the tough year, Keys-McKoy said her children are just as excited for the holidays as in earlier times — and just as in years past she took them to a dollar store to get decorations.
“The holiday is in my heart. It’s not about my circumstances right now,” she said. “That’s how I make it through this. I don’t look at myself as a loser right now. I look at myself and I’m down on my fortune, but I’m coming up.”
On Thursday night, with mashed potatoes and stuffing and other Thanksgiving staples being served at the shelter cafeteria a week early, Jeryimah said he's excited for the upcoming holiday, especially the “turkey and mac and cheese.”
Jeryimah’s 6-year-old brother Isiah goes to Roberto Clemente School in East Harlem. Their 29-year-old brother Michael is unemployed.
Keys-McKoy said they will all be cooking a meal in their shelter apartment this year, just like they did in their Brooklyn home last year.
“We’ve got...the plates, the cups, the napkins,” she said. “This is not something I want, but it’s a temporary situation.”
WIN CEO Christine Quinn said that the holiday season can be a painful reminder of loss for families experiencing homelessness.
“Especially Thanksgiving, you want to spend your holiday with your family in your home,” she said. “For the moms, especially, I think it’s a punch in the gut.”
WIN is the largest operator of family shelters in the city, with more than 1,600 families living in WIN shelters around the city, including more than 2,300 children.
A number of WIN shelters offered early Thanksgiving meals to residents to boost their spirits early in the holiday season.
At Jennie Clark WIN staffers served turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, macaroni and cheese, biscuits and pie to dozens of residents.
The mood was lighthearted, even amid the struggles families faced.