Fire in Minneapolis leaves 250 homeless on Christmas Day

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – Fire swept a hotel apartment building that provides transitional housing for the poor in downtown Minneapolis early on Wednesday, leaving about 250 people homeless on Christmas morning, city officials said.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported in the four-alarm blaze. Three residents with minor injuries were taken to a hospital for evaluation, and several others were treated at the scene for smoke inhalation, officials said.

The fire erupted before dawn on the second floor of the three-story Francis Drake Hotel before spreading to the third floor and attic area of the brick building, city Fire Chief John Fruetel told reporters outside the complex.

The cause was unknown, Fruetel said, adding that he expected it would take fire crews until Thursday to fully extinguish the blaze.

Television news footage showed flames leaping through the roof amid thick smoke as firefighters poured streams of water onto the burning structure.

“I would estimate that the building is going to be a total loss,” assistant fire chief Bryan Tyner told Minnesota Public Radio News.

With temperatures hovering just above freezing, the city immediately brought in transit buses to provide emergency shelter and warmth for displaced residents, Mayor Jacob Frey told a news briefing, adding that municipal agencies were working with the American Red Cross and other authorities to provide food, longer-term shelter, clothing and other needs for the evacuees.

“These are people’s lives, this is their home. They’re concerned about everything from a wallet or a phone so they can get in touch with a loved one on Christmas, to where are their babies going to get formula,” Frey said, choking up with emotion.

The Francis Drake, which opened in 1926 as a luxury hotel later converted to residential units, provides overflow shelter space for homeless families, as well as temporary lodging for individuals who lack permanent housing in Minnesota’s largest city, municipal and county officials said.

Drake Hotel resident Jason Vandenboom said he was awakened by his wife when fire alarms sounded and he ventured out of their unit to see “a guy coming down the hallway, just pounding on the doors, saying, ‘There’s a fire, we gotta get out of here.'”

Gazing out to another wing of the building, “I saw flames shooting at least about 10, 15 feet (3, 4.5 meters) up,” he told CBS affiliate WCCO-TV. Vandenboom said he then ran back to his room and told his wife, “‘Yeah, we gotta go now.’ … It was bad.”

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Culver City, Calif.; Editing by Leslie Adler and Sandra Maler)

This caravan of migrants headed south to Mexico – for Christmas

This caravan of migrants headed south to Mexico – for Christmas
By Daniel Becerril

JALPAN DE SERRA, Mexico (Reuters) – Poor Central American migrants who form caravans to fend off predatory gangs as they cross Mexico’s interior en route to the United States have made global headlines and drawn the ire of President Donald Trump.

But last week in the Texan border city of Laredo a caravan of about 1,500 families made up of Mexican migrants and Americans of Mexican origin set out in the opposite direction – for their Christmas holidays.

Driving large cars laden with clothes, perfumes and other Christmas presents, the Mexicans, all with U.S. legal status, bore scant resemblance to the Central American migrants trudging north on foot, except for their shared fear of criminal gangs.

“There’s a lot of extortion, corruption, many people have been attacked,” said Jesus Mendoza, a 35-year-old painter who obtained U.S. legal residency in August and returned to Mexico for the first time this year since 2001.

About half of the 12 million Mexicans living in the United States have legal residency, and Mexico’s Senate expected more than 3 million to return home this year.

But doing so by car poses a challenge as Mexico’s northern border regions have been racked by a tide of drug-fueled violence that led to a record 29,000 murders last year.

With three young children and a wife he met on Facebook, Mendoza was going back to a Mexico different to the one he left behind as a teenager before the country embarked on a so-called war on drugs in 2006 and violence spiraled.

“It’s a sad thing that some don’t want … to visit with their family because of the situation,” he told Reuters in Jalpan de Serra in central Mexico after arriving there on Dec. 16.

Trump has called migrant caravans bound for the United States “invasions” and has threatened to close the U.S. border with Mexico.

Mendoza’s caravan of hundreds of cars set off around 5 a.m. local time from a Walmart car park in Laredo, reaching its final stop in Jalpan some 14 hours later, shortly after dusk.

Such car caravans moving south into Mexico have been rare over the past decade. But those who reached their family homes say safety in numbers is vital.

“It’s sad that when I enter Mexico I don’t feel safe,” said Mariela Ramirez Palacios, a Mexico-born resident of Oklahoma. “The caravan is safe.”

(Reporting by Daniel Becerril; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Not so lonely this Christmas: Britain’s ethical businesses tackle isolation epidemic

By Sarah Shearman

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Babies bounced on parents’ knees, toddlers dancing around the room, crackers pulled with the elderly care home residents in their armchairs as everyone sang to a medley of Christmas songs.

Following 30 minutes of festive-themed joyful chaos, the multi-generational group spanning almost 100 years of age between them chatted over mince pies.

For Kathleen Page, 89, the weekly Songs and Smiles sessions held in the lounge of her care home in east London have brought her happiness and a sense of belonging.

“I’ve got a feeling that even though I don’t know (the parents and children), they want me – it’s a lovely feeling,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Since I’ve been in here, I’ve had something to live for – all these people in the same place, I’ve found peace.”

The weekly singing sessions are hosted by the Together Project, founded in 2017 by Louise Goulden, who came up with the idea while on maternity leave after seeing the positive effect taking her baby into care homes had on elderly residents.

It is one of many social enterprises – businesses that aim to do good – tackling loneliness, often referred to as an epidemic that is more acutely felt around Christmas.

“Having children and parents come in and laugh together, move, sing Christmas songs can be so beneficial,” said Goulden.

“The effect of the sessions … lifts the mood of the home for the rest of the day and is even an anchor point for the rest of their week.”

But the sessions do not just boost the spirits of residents. They have also helped lonely parents – some of whom have suffered postnatal depression – while also benefiting children who learn through positive social interactions.

The Together Project has spread to more than 20 care homes across England, mostly in the south.

EPIDEMIC

Britain is in the grips of a loneliness crisis, impacting one in 20 people, according to 2018 government data from the Office of National Statistics.

Young people, between the ages of 16-24, are three times more likely to feel “always or often lonely” than people over 65, found the study, although no annual comparative data was available.

For more than 1.5 million older people Christmas is the loneliest time of the year, with those who have lost a loved one struggling most, found a recent survey by charity Age UK.

“Everybody will be affected (by loneliness) at some stage in their lives,” said Lyndsey Young, who experienced it herself when she moved to a new area, where she did not know anyone, became a mother and started working freelance.

Loneliness inspired a business idea and in 2018 she designed an outdoor seating area lined with planters in Bottesford, a village in central England with a population of under 4,000, where people could sit if they felt lonely and wanted a chat.

Set up as a social enterprise, the Friendly Bench hosts a variety of events throughout the year with the aim of bringing groups together, from elderly people to teenagers to veterans and people with disabilities.

“It’s more than a bench – it’s a place for people to connect,” said Young, who has installed the Friendly Bench in another location nearby in Leicestershire and has about 10 more planned next year.

Given the unpredictable winter weather, on Christmas Eve Friendly Bench volunteers will knock on doors in the village, handing out mince pies and inviting people to a gathering later that day at a sheltered accommodation lounge.

“People often don’t have anything on in the run up to Christmas or the bit afterwards … so it is nice to have a chat and meet people you’ve lived in the community with years when your paths don’t cross,” she said.

“I feel we have all the solutions (to loneliness) within the community, we just need to give people the excuse to step forward.”

POOR HEALTH

Feelings of loneliness and isolation have long been linked to worse health and shortened life spans, affecting both mental and physical health, but it is not just people who lack daily human interactions that feel lonely.

In busy hospitals, patients on wards can experience loneliness, despite being around other patients and having a regular stream of healthcare workers and visitors.

For patients too sick to be discharged before Christmas, these feelings are often exacerbated at this time of year.

Tim Osborn, performing arts project manager for London-based social enterprise Breathe Arts Health Research, said music can help them feel a bit better.

Breathe has a team of solo musicians, including guitarists, harpists and cellists, who regularly do “pop-up” performances across three south London hospitals and clinical units.

With a repertoire ranging from flamenco to folk music, the musicians will be at the hospitals this Christmas Eve, performing in lounge areas, wards and by patients’ bedsides.

“(The performances) allow the staff to interact with the patients about something else rather than health … and can encourage patients to sit and talk to each other,” said Osborn.

“It can provoke a conversation and so that can act as a huge distraction for people.”

(Reporting by Sarah Shearman @Shearmans. Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and slavery, property rights, social innovation, resilience and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)

U.S. ready to deal with any North Korean ‘Christmas gift’: Trump

U.S. ready to deal with any North Korean ‘Christmas gift’: Trump
By Alexandra Alper

PALM BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday brushed off North Korea’s warning of a “Christmas gift”, saying the United States would “deal with it very successfully,” amid U.S. concerns that Pyongyang might be preparing a long-range missile test.

“We’ll find out what the surprise is and we’ll deal with it very successfully,” Trump told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort. “We’ll see what happens.”

“Maybe it’s a nice present,” he quipped. “Maybe it’s a present where he sends me a beautiful vase as opposed to a missile test.”

North Korea warned Washington earlier this month of a possible “Christmas gift” after its leader Kim Jong Un gave the United States until the end of the year to propose new concessions in talks over his country’s nuclear arsenal and reducing tensions between the two long-time adversaries.

In issuing the warning, North Korea accused Washington of trying to drag out denuclearization talks ahead of Trump’s re-election bid next year and said it was “entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get.”

U.S. military commanders have said that the North Korean response could involve the testing of a long-range missile, something North Korea has suspended, along with nuclear bomb tests, since 2017.

Trump has repeatedly held up the suspension of such tests as evidence that his policy of engaging with North Korea, which has involved unprecedented summits with Kim, was working.

ICBM TEST IN 2017

North Korea’s last test of an intercontinental ballistic missile took place in November 2017. That involved a Hwasong-15 ICBM, the largest missile it has ever tested, and which it said was capable of reaching all of the United States.

Trump and Kim have met three times since 2018, but there has been no substantive progress in dialogue. North Korea has demanded an end to international sanctions while the United States says Pyongyang must first commit to giving up its nuclear weapons.

Recent days have seen a flurry of international diplomacy aimed at preventing a complete breakdown of dialogue and avoiding a return to the heated confrontation seen two years ago that raised fears of war.

China, North Korea’s most important economic and diplomatic backer, together with Russia, proposed last week that the U.N. Security Council lift some sanctions to break the current deadlock.

A U.S. State Department official responded by saying it was not the time to consider lifting U.N. sanctions when North Korea was “threatening to conduct an escalated provocation, refusing to meet to discuss denuclearization, and continuing to maintain and advance its prohibited weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.”

North Korea has conducted repeated tests of short-range missiles this year and this month carried out what appeared to be engine tests at a rocket-testing facility U.S. officials have said Kim promised Trump he would close.

Pyongyang said the tests were aimed at “restraining and overpowering the nuclear threat of the U.S.”

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper, Tim Ahmann and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Alex Richardson and Alistair Bell)

Carols and bells in Bethlehem as Christmas draws near

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) – Christmas cheer rang out through Bethlehem’s Manger Square on Monday as pilgrims and worshippers flocked to the city revered as Jesus’s birthplace and locals made final preparations for this year’s festivities.

Children dressed as Santa Claus sang carols and rang bells during a Christmas-themed show at the College des Freres, which sits in the biblical city’s central market where holiday decorations and wooden nativity scenes line the narrow alleys.

The main attractions in Bethlehem are the 4th-century Church of the Nativity, built over a grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus was born, and the 16-metre (52-foot) Christmas tree in Manger Square.

On Tuesday – Christmas Eve – the acting Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, will lead a procession from Jerusalem to nearby Bethlehem and later celebrate Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity, squeezing through its narrow sandstone entrance.

Bethlehem’s Christmas season lasts through the Eastern Orthodox celebration on Jan. 7 to Armenian Christmas on Jan. 18.

The season offers measured cheer for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city, which is separated from nearby Jerusalem by a towering Israeli concrete military barrier.

Bethlehem is enjoying its busiest tourist year in two decades, with foreign pilgrims coming in large numbers, taking advantage of a relative lull in Israeli-Palestinian tension.

Israel said on Sunday it would allow Christians in the Palestinian Gaza Strip to visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem at Christmas, reversing an earlier decision not to issue them permits.

(Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Bethlehem set for a Happy Christmas: more rooms, more inns and part of its manger back

Bethlehem set for a Happy Christmas: more rooms, more inns and part of its manger back
By Stephen Farrell

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) – As the Christmas decorations go up in Manger Square, Bethlehem is preparing for its best Christmas for two decades, the town’s mayor and hoteliers say.

Five new hotels are in the pipeline and existing ones are expanding. The town has even extended the opening hours of the Church of the Nativity, revered by Christians worldwide as the place of Jesus’ birth.

But even after three years of relative peace and prosperity, people are still nervous in the small Palestinian town, a few miles south of Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

So dependent has Bethlehem become on tourist income that an upsurge of violence anywhere in the volatile Middle East – not just in its near vicinity – spells financial disaster, with nervous tour groups prone to cancelling months ahead.

Sitting in his municipality office overlooking the newly lit Christmas tree in Manger Square, Mayor Anton Salman said Bethlehem looked set to improve upon the 1.5 million visitors it received last year.

“Since three years (ago), things are going up, this year is better than 2018 and 2018 was better than 2017 and it is a continuous increase in the number of tourists who are coming to the city,” Salman told Reuters.

The main bottleneck, he said, was the tiny front door of the Nativity church, through which pilgrims must crouch to enter. Once vast, it was reduced in size centuries ago by the Crusaders, then again during the Mamluk and Ottoman Turkish eras to prevent looters driving carts into the church.

For the first time this year the authorities extended the church’s opening hours from sunset to 8 p.m., Salman said, and in 2020 they plan to enlarge the town’s coach station and to address heavy congestion on the narrow road to Manger Square.

They will even consider asking tourist groups to register in advance in future. “If the number will be high and the church can’t receive all of them we need to look for other plans that can be helpful,” he said.

GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST

This year townsfolk are abuzz about a new attraction – a wooden relic reputed to be from the manger used by the infant Jesus and sent back last week to Bethlehem from Rome.

But the town remains wary. Bethlehem enjoyed good times until the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, which saw years of mutual blood-letting between Israelis and Palestinians, leading tourism to collapse.

Scars remain – most visibly Israel’s high concrete wall that towers over the northern entrance to Bethlehem, and separates it from Jerusalem.

Palestinians call Israel’s military barrier a land grab. Israel says the cordon of fences, ditches and walls has drastically reduced attacks on its citizens.

The manager of the Alexander Hotel in Bethlehem, Joey Canavati, said his family had nearly given up on the town during the lean years, but now had bookings through to 2021. The hotel plans to nearly double in size from 58 to 110 rooms.

“Business has been booming, we have never seen it like this ever before,” he said. “(With) the number of tourists that have been coming in this year we have a huge lack of rooms here in Bethlehem.”

But he added a familiar note of caution: “It’s always about stability.”

(Writing by Stephen Farrell, additional reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Black Friday sees fewer shoppers in U.S. stores as spending moves online

Black Friday sees fewer shoppers in U.S. stores as spending moves online
By Melissa Fares and Nandita Bose

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Fewer people lined up outside stores as Black Friday shopping kicked off, suggesting early discounts offered by retail chains and a surge in online buying may have taken the shine off America’s biggest shopping day.

Spot checks across the country showed there were fewer shoppers this year as retail chains started offering discounts earlier than usual to make up for a shorter holiday season.

Some shoppers also worried that tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump on Chinese imports would make their holiday shopping more expensive, though many large retailers had not raised prices to protect margins.

“There were definitely some concerns about prices due to what we see in the news about the trade war, but I haven’t seen the impact yet, so I am planning to spend about the same this year as I have in the past,” said Jay Smith, 28, who was shopping at a Macy’s in Pentagon City to buy clothes and toys for her family.

While store traffic still remains an important indicator, a lot of shopping during Thanksgiving and Black Friday now happens online. Adobe Analytics, which measures transactions from 80 of the top 100 U.S. online retailers, estimates $7.5 billion in online sales for Black Friday, growth of over 20.5% year-over-year.

Online sales on Thanksgiving Day alone jumped 17% to $4.1 billion in the United States, according to Salesforce. Global online revenue rose 24% to $20 billion.

Companies including Walmart Inc , Target Corp , Costco Wholesale Corp  and Best Buy Co Inc  have bulked up their online presence, deliveries and fast in-store pickups to attract customers.

Though Black Friday remains an important day for holiday shopping, its relevance is fading as the condensed shopping season this year has accelerated early promotions and spending. Retailers have six fewer days to make sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

That has pulled spending into early November. More than half of consumers polled by the National Retail Federation (NRF) in the first week of this month had already begun making purchases. On average, Americans had already completed almost a quarter of their shopping, the most in the history of NRF’s surveys.

“We’ve seen many merchants start their promotions pretty much right after the trick-or-treaters have gone to bed,” said Lauren Bitar, head of retail consulting at analytics firm RetailNext.

Sales made prior to Thanksgiving and Black Friday could erode “the spike that we have seen in sales dollars historically,” Bitar said.

Several shoppers on Friday said they regularly make sure they are getting the best deal by making price comparisons, oftentimes as they are shopping in-store.

“I will come to the mall, look at prices and go back and check them online,” said Dick Doyle, 76, who was shopping at a Modell’s Sporting Goods while his wife was next door at Nordstrom Rack <JWN.N>. Doyle is an Amazon <AMZN.O> Prime member, which keeps him “locked in” to shopping the online retailer.

“Prices and discounts online are competitive to what’s available in stores,” he added.

Meanwhile, in France, activists staged protests against Amazon on Friday, denouncing the rampant consumerism typified by the annual Black Friday shopping frenzy.

(Reporting by Melissa Fares in New York, Nandita Bose in Washington, Richa Naidu in Chicago and Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Uday Sampath in Bengaluru; Editing by Sweta Singh, Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Nick Zieminski)

U.S. holiday shoppers spend record $126 billion online

FILE PHOTO: Shoppers walk through the King of Prussia Mall, United States' largest retail shopping space, in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, U.S., December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Mark Makela

By Melissa Fares

(Reuters) – U.S. shoppers spent a record $126 billion on online shopping during the 2018 holiday season, taking advantage of early discounts on Amazon.com and other websites and with more people using smartphones to place their orders, Adobe Analytics said on Tuesday.

Adobe, which collects its data by measuring 80 percent of all online transactions from the top 100 U.S. web retailers, said the amount was 16.5 percent higher than last year’s total.

Mobile platforms made up 51 percent of traffic to retail websites during the November-December period and were responsible for nearly a third of all online spending.

Online shoppers spent $3.7 billion on Thanksgiving and $6.2 billion on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

Cyber Monday the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday &mdash; was the biggest U.S. online shopping day ever, with $7.9 billion spent.

Top-selling items online were L.O.L. Surprise Fingerlings toys; Take-Two Interactive Software’s video game Red Dead Redemption 2; Nintendo’s Switch console; streaming devices; and Dell and Apple laptops, Adobe said.

Consumers spent an average 40 percent more per day during the three weeks after Cyber Monday than in the first three weeks of the season, Adobe said. Sales continued to grow until Dec. 17.

While the online sales figures showed how low U.S. unemployment rates and rising wages boosted consumer confidence during the holiday season, department stores continue to struggle.

Further, consumer confidence in 2019 is seen as likely to be strained by rising U.S. interest rates, the ongoing trade dispute with China, market volatility due to concerns over global growth and political deadlock in Washington.

Macy’s Inc shares plunged 18 percent on Thursday after the department store chain slashed its full-year profit and sales forecast on the back of an anemic holiday season.

Kohl’s Corp reported similarly muted comparable sales growth for the holidays, sending its shares down as much as 9 percent on Thursday. Shares of Target Corp were down nearly 4 percent even after the retailer posted relatively strong holiday sales growth of nearly 6 percent on Thursday.

Overall sales for the 2018 U.S. holiday shopping season rose 5.1 percent to over $850 billion, hitting a six-year high, as shoppers were encouraged by early discounts, according to a Mastercard report in late December.

(Reporting by Melissa Fares in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Wall Street set to open higher as post-Christmas rally continues

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., December 27, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Medha Singh

(Reuters) – Wall Street was set to open slightly higher on Friday, extending a two-day rally amid volatile trading and raising hopes that the recent selloff may have eased for now.

The three main index futures rose more than 1 percent before paring some gains.

At 8:38 a.m. ET, Dow e-minis were up 0.43 percent. S&P 500 e-minis were up 0.38 percent and Nasdaq 100 e-minis were up 0.23 percent.

The final week of 2018 has seen wild swings in equities, with the CBOE Volatility Index, Wall Street’s main fear gauge, hitting its highest level since early February before easing slightly.

The benchmark S&P 500 tested its 20-month low early in the week and was at the brink of bear market territory before the three main indexes roared back with their biggest daily surge in nearly a decade on Wednesday and a late rally the following day.

On Thursday, the S&P fell as much as 2.8 percent but closed 0.8 percent higher as markets turned around late in the session.

In a sign of optimism on trade on Friday, China opened the door to imports of rice from the United States for the first time ever in the run-up to talks between the two countries in January.

“Yesterday’s reversal suggests the market has made a temporary bottom and we could probably rally well into the new year,” said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Spartan Capital Securities in New York.

“In spite of the government shutdown, the market seems more concerned on trade talks, which are somewhat lifting the negative sentiment.”

Stocks could swing between gains and losses due to the volatility but end-of-the-year window dressing and investors looking to buy stocks at attractive valuations should end in a positive session, Cardillo said.

Heavyweight technology names including Microsoft Corp, Apple Inc and Amazon.com  – which were among the biggest boosts to Wall Street’s rally on Thursday – rose more than 0.5 percent in premarket trading.

Of the 30 Dow components, 29 were trading higher.

The three indexes are set to end the week with gains of more than 3 percent each, snapping three straight weeks of steep losses.

Still, the indexes are down more than 9 percent for December and remain on track for their biggest annual percentage drop since 2008.

Investors head into 2019 with a list of worries ranging from U.S.-China trade tensions, rising interest rates and a cooling economy to a partial U.S. government shutdown, which is now in its sixth day.

(Reporting by Medha Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D’Silva)