On Christmas Day at the “Women’s Lunch Place” — a shelter tucked away on Newbury Street — Chef Inna Khitrik and a handful of staff, including volunteers, bustled around the kitchen warmed by cooking pot roast.

While kitchen assistant Titania checked on pans of roasting brussels sprouts, Khitrik turned baking trays of vegetable roast in puff pastry, then hurried to slice portions of creamy tiramisu and top them with tiny chocolate cookies shaped like stars.

Outside the kitchen, the guests — dozens of women in need — sat at long tables talking and waiting to be served the special meal. On this holiday when the streets are empty and the fortunate are gathered at home, guest Ivelisse Moreno said the draw was the “extremely caring staff.”

“For the homeless population, especially for the women, most of us are missing our children during this time of year. So having a place that we know to be safe and warm and welcoming, works out,” said Moreno, who described herself as “chronically homeless” and having mental health issues.

A Christmas tree draped with lights and glittering ribbons and an ornament reading "believe in yourself and your own strength"
The message on a Christmas tree ornament at "Women's Lunch Place" on Newbury Street in Boston.
Liz Neisloss GBH News

This Christmas luncheon with special food and gifts is an annual tradition at the “Women’s Lunch Place,” a day shelter offering meals, free medical care, support services for mental health and substance use recovery, and housing assistance. Shelter staff say this year they’ve seen a rising number of unhoused women and a greater need for services.

“We’re seeing a big uptick in like, major mental health concerns, substance use, trauma. I mean our women have been through so much. I don’t think that’s a new thing, but I certainly think that we’re seeing just a higher acuity of need,” said Rachel Klein, shelter manager.

It’s a trend reflected nationwide.

The number of “unaccompanied” women experiencing homelessness rose by more than 10% in 2023, according to the annual “Homeless Assessment” by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The recently released report estimates homelessness by compiling national data from a “single-night snapshot.”

That estimate is likely an “undercount” according to Mary Ellen Hombs, an author and former deputy director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), an independent federal agency which works to coordinate strategy and support state and local efforts.

She said the annual count, the current tool for measuring homeless populations, is inadequate for women in particular.

“In the case of unaccompanied women whose concern is safety, it’s not a good tool for women who do not want to be found and who do a lot of work not to be found, and may try not to seek shelter,” said Hombs.

But efforts to gather better data may be in the works. USICH recently announced plans for new researchwith a special focus on “particularly high-risk groups,” including unaccompanied women. Hombs said it could offer “a new foothold for advocacy” for this group.

Those helping out at “Women’s Lunch Place” already know the need is deep. Barbara Saunders, who has volunteered at “Women’s Lunch Place” for 12 years, urges more women to donate their time.

“It pays forward, you know, and it’s good to give back and volunteer,” said Saunders, “to give of yourself, rather than just a check.”

Guest Tye Moreno was grateful for the kindness of volunteers and staff and spoke of the holiday luncheon’s bittersweet bond.

“As a community, it’s kind of like a family. We’re not at home,” said Moreno. “So this is a little sense of home when we all get together like this, sharing the same heartache, you know?”