12/26/2012 11:34 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Christmas After Sandy: Hurricane Victims Join The Lonely And Poor For Holiday Dinner In Hackensack

The homeless, the lonely and the working poor had Christmas dinner Tuesday with guests who don't normally share in the holiday meals at shelters: North Jersey residents still trying to recover from superstorm Sandy.

Lincoln Marette, a 70-year-old Vietnam vet, had a home until two months ago when the near hurricane in late October flooded his rented trailer in Moonachie and put a tree through its middle. Since then, he has been bunking at the Bergen County Housing Health and Human Services Center, a 90-bed shelter in Hackensack.

For him, Tuesday's dinner -- turkey, ham, barbecue chicken, meatballs, lasagna, mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese -- was a step up from his normal Christmas routine. When he had a home, it was usually himself and a TV dinner. Now he had multiple courses and plenty of company.

"This was spectacular for me," he said wearing shined black loafers and a beret with an American flag pinned to it.

Marette was one of 13 Sandy victims shelter director Julie Orlando put up after the storm. About three or four remain.

At Eva's Village in Paterson, Alexis LaLuz sat eating a mound of roast chicken, rolls and mashed potatoes within sight of his apartment above a gold dealer's shop. HIV positive and living on disability, the 53-year-old came to the shelter not so much for the food as for the people.

"Most of these guys I know," he said, gesturing toward the hundreds of other diners at the shelter. "I have a lot of good friends here."

Eva's served 500 meals and gave out hundreds more gift bags full of scarves, gloves and toiletries Tuesday. Bergen County's shelter had seated 120 visitors in the first half hour. Organizers at both places say the demand for food is way up as the economy struggles to recover.

"We've seen a significant increase over the years with the working poor," said Marie Reger, Eva's executive director. "I've seen fathers eating dinner here so their kids can have dinner at home."

On Tuesday, the line stretched from the entrance to the shelter's newly expanded dining room. "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" played over loudspeakers as one man traded his donut holes for another man's hotdog buns.

Robyn Coles -- a 53-year-old addict of 32 years who lost her mother in a hit-and-run and has a herniated disc in her back -- called for a moment of silence for the victims of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, in which 20 children and six adults were killed before the gunman committed suicide.

"I'm sick of all the tragedy," she said, once seated. "I have pain about it."

While the faces have changed at these shelters over the years, the "vibe's" the same, according to Hannah Jaicks, a CUNY graduate student who has dished up Christmas meals for the indigent for 14 years at Eva's.

"You'd like to think it'd change and get better but it really doesn't," the 25-year-old said.

And yet there are plenty of exceptions. Jaicks pointed to a hefty man in a red T-shirt and red stocking hat directing people to their seats. Ariel Cordero, 31, used and sold drugs for years on Paterson's streets. It's how he afforded his meager apartment and met his daughter's mother. One day in the winter of 2004, he asked Eva's late founder, the Rev. Vincent Puma, for bus fare to get to a job interview. His daughter was just born and he needed to pull his life together.

Puma gave him $5. Cordero made the interview and got the job: washing dishes at Preakness Healthcare Center.

Now he works at Eva's full time as the assistant to the assistant director. He has the steady paycheck and the health benefits to cover his daughter's seizures and asthma.

"I got clean," he said. "Her mother didn't."

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