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For Christmas, formerly homeless feed homeless in Boulder

Last Christmas, Michael McGraw was alone in his grungy, bathroom-sized apartment, downing alcohol to drown out desperation.

The 56-year-old knew he was about to lose the apartment. He had already lost his job at a mountain liquor store because “showing up hung over every day is hard on the customers.” No one visited him on Christmas Day — and he didn’t care.

What followed were some of the worst months of McGraw’s life, spent sleeping in a Boulder shelter next to people who had lived that way for years. “I didn’t want to go there, and I was on my way,” he said last week.

This Christmas, though, McGraw will tie a white apron over his jeans, cover his ponytail with a hat, and serve braised beef and ham with pineapple relish to people who are homeless. After nine months in dorm-style housing through a ready-to-work program through Bridge House, he is about to move into his own apartment.

Each year, the program houses 44 people in its dorm and trains them in one of two “social enterprises”: culinary arts and landscaping. Three-quarters of graduates end up with their own housing and a job within about one year.

At Bridge House’s Community Table Kitchen, culinary arts and catering trainees were chopping carrots and sliding the peels off trays of baked yams in the days before Christmas. One trainee cut dozens of tiny shortbread cookies, while another diced enough onions to make eyes sting on the other side of the stainless-steel commercial kitchen.

About 300 homeless people were expected to attend a Christmas meal at the Lazy Dog Sports Bar on Pearl Street Mall, where Bridge House trainees will plop piles of whipped yams and French green beans on their plates.

“What I love is that formerly homeless individuals are preparing food for our homeless individuals. That’s pretty powerful,” said Emily Messina, development director for Bridge House.

The ready-to-work program started in 2012 with five trainees. It has since expanded to 44 people and now includes housing at the Ready to Work House and Employment Center on Table Mesa Drive.

Community Table Kitchen runs cafes at Naropa University, chops vegetables for two local grocery stores, sells grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches, and prepares and delivers dinners for the homeless to a different church each night. Last year, it prepared 100,000 meals for homeless and low-income people.

Trainees are paid $15,000 per year and encouraged to save money to lease their own apartments. It costs Bridge House an additional $15,000 per person for housing, addiction counseling and other support.

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