For seven years David Timothy has brought to the Hyatt Regency downtown 500 homeless people for a Christmas dinner, followed by a night's stay in a warm bed; as Mayor Mike Rawlings said during this year's event, "it's the way we do things in Dallas -- in a classy way." But this morning Timothy sounded the alarm, via emails to media and his SoupMobile website: The annual tradition is in danger of coming to an end.
According to Timothy, he and Lon Ricker, chairman of the Christmas event, were told by Hyatt officials a few weeks ago that the hotel isn't available for Christmas Eve 2012 because "they were doing some remodeling and rooms could not be guaranteed." When I called Priscilla Hagstrom, Hyatt Dallas's spokesperson, to see if that's correct, she said, yes, "They will be doing guest-room renovations." But she'd only just seen Timothy's missive and was in the process of trying to track down further details; an update, she promised, is forthcoming.
[Update at 3:17 p.m.: Fred Euler, general manager at the Hyatt, just called to confirm that, yes, "the 2012 event will probably end up at another location" because of renovations. But, he stressed, Timothy "certainly hasn't lost his partnership for future years. We made it very clear because of the renovation this is a one-time situation, and we offered to assist him with another location. We've partnered with them for over seven years, had a good meeting with them, and offered to work on some other events coming in 2012 ... because we won't be bale to do the Christmas event." Euler says he's "talked to at least two other hotels ... and I am confident because it's such a positive event we can help them get another location. But we look forward to partnering with them for many more years."]
I also asked Paula Blackmon, Mayor Rawlings's chief of staff, if she knew about this; it was the first she'd heard of the potential demise of the event, which Tom Leppert also attended during his tenure as Dallas mayor. Rawlings, of course, had served as the city's "homeless czar" under Leppert.
I asked Timothy if they've spoken with other hotels downtown about taking over hosting duties -- like, say, the new Omni. But, he told me, "the real issue here is the event itself logistically is huge. We don't just have 500 homeless people but we have 2,000 volunteers helping us during the course of the event, so logistically it takes a world class hotel to help out. And it takes a hotel willing to deal with 500 homeless people, and few hotels are willing to do that at any price."
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He said the reason he sounded the alarm so early is because conventions book up hotels years in advance, and he's terrified that sooner than later he'll discover there's no room at the inn.
"For an event of this magnitude -- and it's a one-of-a-kind event -- and for us, time is of the essence," he said. "When we got the bad news a couple of weeks ago that the Hyatt was not having us back, we were very surprised and disappointed, not so much for us but for these homeless people we give a magical Christmas to every year. After seven years it would be a sad Christmas for me personally, but it's become a real institution, not just in Dallas but it gets a lot of attention across the nation.
He's hopeful that with months to go before the event, they might find another hotel willing to partner up for the event. But Timothy is also pragmatic enough to know: Christmas is almost 11 months away, and already he's running out of time.
"We're a charity, so we always go the hope route," he says with a small laugh. "We're not a religious charity, but we are faith-based and we have a strong belief the God of the Red Sea is alive and well, and He knows we have a problem here. We're in prayer, but more than that, we believe as God's hands and feet on this earth we need to take concrete steps to make things happen. We'll try to tap into all our resources and donors to find another hotel, and at the same time, we'll keep praying."