Hyatt Regency Dallas opens its doors to give city's homeless a night's stay

Shiya Davis, 5, was followed by her father, Byronn, on a red carpet at the Hyatt, where a holiday banquet awaited them in the hotel's ballroom.

For Christmas this year, John Sanders is getting a different life.

He will wake up Christmas morning with his head on a soft pillow, stretched out on a warm bed in a plush hotel in downtown Dallas.

He will have spent Christmas Eve eating three square meals, watching sports on cable television and relaxing without the fears that accompany his daily life.

His stay at the Hyatt Regency Dallas is only a few miles from the streets of South Dallas, where, most nights, he lies down to sleep.

But it is a lifetime away from the countless bad breaks and what Sanders, 55, says are the bad choices that led him to be homeless.

"This is just a blessing. I'm just like a big kid. This is a present for me," he said before sitting down to a lunch of roast sirloin with all the fixings and a dessert of chocolate cake.

Sanders was among 500 homeless people taking part Friday in the sixth annual SoupMobile Celebrate Jesus event organized by SoupMobile Inc. and its founder, the SoupMan, David Timothy.

The program provides the homeless with a room at the Hyatt on Christmas Eve, something the hotel has been doing for 10 years and has expanded in recent years in partnership with Timothy.

The centerpiece of the event was a banquet on Christmas Eve that brought all of the participants together for a meal, music from the award-wining Vocal Majority chorus and beck-and-call service from the likes of Mayor Tom Leppert.

Sherry McGilvery called it a blessed day for her and her husband, who spent the summer together on the streets before a landlord recently "took a chance" and let them rent a duplex south of downtown, she said.

"This is a big break. It takes a lot of pressure off us. It's one day we don't have to worry about what we're going to eat and where to sleep," she said.

McGilvery landed on the streets after her husband lost his construction job.

She has trouble holding work because of her schizophrenia, she said.

Life at the edge

Her husband gets a disability check, and she gets a little assistance money, too. But the money doesn't cover the rent, the bills and the food every month. So close to the edge, they fell off for a little while and were left to look for whatever spaces shelters might provide, she said.

Live a life like that and it's hard to imagine what it's like to be welcomed, literally with open arms, by hundreds of volunteers who greeted the homeless as they walked into the Hyatt on a red carpet Friday morning.

"It's something beyond belief," said Cecil Grebe, 52, who had vague memories of staying in the hotel years ago, before his life took a turn that left him homeless.

Fred Euler, general manager of the Hyatt, said opening the hotel up this way at Christmastime is the right thing to do.

"It's really important for us to have these individuals who aren't as fortunate as the rest of us to have a warm meal and a warm place to stay," he said.

For Sanders, who says he avoids shelters out of fear and prefers the solitude of the streets, it sounded almost like a miracle come true.

"I've always heard of it, but I just never had a chance," he said, his voice trailing off as he looked toward the banquet room and the dinner that awaited.

(Dallas Morning News, December 25, 2010)