"That was Christmas," said Cullen, 77.

This year was far brighter for Cullen. He and 15 others at the Vendome Hotel were given a heaping, Christmas-dinner style meal Thursday, and a bag of gifts courtesy of San Mateo police officers and a local business owner.

At the Vendome, a city-purchased facility at South Claremont Street and Second Avenue that offers cheap rent to the homeless, Cullen said he much preferred this type of Christmas.

"This is nice," he said. "One hundred percent better."

The Police Officers Association and the owners of the local Harry's Hofbrau, the Olcese family, bought the food and presents, and decorated the hotel with Christmas-themed ornaments and, of course, a tree. Police Chief Susan Manheimer led the festivities, Councilman David Lim stopped by to show his thanks and the hotel's operators, the Shelter Network, organized it.

The gifts included basic necessities that Manheimer said many people take for granted — toiletries such as tooth brushes, toothpaste, deodorant and shampoo.

Many of the participants struggle through particularly tough times during the holidays, Manheimer said.

"These are the times when everyone else is gathering around with friends and family," Manheimer said. "But they are so alone."

Like Cullen, Vendome resident Greg Evans, 52, also appreciated the helping hand.

"It means a lot," Evans said. "I spent nine years out there (on the street), just about."

Shelter Network Executive Director Michele Jackson said this is the first time they have done a Christmas event there, and they thought it was important to build a sense of family among the residents during the holidays. Throughout the year, they provide the previously homeless with hot meals, showers, kitchen space, bathrooms and a roof.

"We try to bring a sense of community to this program," Jackson said.

It seems to have worked. During the two hours the event lasted, it was much like a family gathering during the holidays — people taking turns preparing food in the kitchen, setting the tables in the dining room and chatting with old friends. Even the food had a festive theme: oven-roasted turkey, baked ham and stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables and, most importantly, pie.

But not everyone was so lucky this Christmas.

Jackson said the waiting list for families to get spots in their shelters continues to climb and they now receive more than 1,000 calls per week from families in need, up from 600 just months ago. Once the holidays pass, they typically see even bigger spikes in demand as the needy end their stays with friends and family members, she said.

For the city and the Police Department, Manheimer said the issue was "close to our hearts."

"It's really our privilege to serve them," she said.