Editor’s Note: This is the first story in a series highlighting how some Florida Conference churches and their members support the homeless.
Like most acts of kindness, it began with a small idea. Two decades ago, members of Tampa’s affluent Hyde Park United Methodist Church noticed that homeless people were gathering for shelter under a nearby expressway. They were hungry. Why not give them something to eat?
So, they made a few peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and served some coffee. It became a weekly occurrence. Food preparation was organized. More people showed up. And there were suddenly concerns.
“There was pushback,’’ said longtime church volunteer Stephen Crawford, an attorney. “Some in the community wondered if we should be attracting homeless people. Well, like typical Methodists, we argued about it, we yelled at each other and we formed a committee.
“In the end, we were unified. Doing something like this, it was what we were all about.’’
That remains true.
Today, the church’s Open Arms Ministry welcomes about 200 homeless or low-income citizens each Sunday morning to a spacious activity center for free meals that have graduated from simple PB&J fare.
There are meats and breads of all kinds, potatoes, fruits and vegetables, lots of sweets. A handful of restaurants serve as community partners, while the list of available volunteers has swelled to nearly 500.
When the food is blessed with a prayer from one of the homeless guests, each table (identified by a Biblical name, such as Ezekiel) is called in order to the buffet line. At the end, everyone gets a shot at seconds in takeaway containers.
But the Open Arms Ministry has become much more than dropping off food for the needy, then resuming with the daily routine. It’s an accepted—if not cherished—part of life at Hyde Park UMC.
Following the meal, there’s now a Sunday School class for the homeless. There’s mail delivery, free bicycle repair, a monthly clothing drive, a lending library, food-stamps education and a twice-yearly dental clinic.
“All my theological education pales in comparison to life with people who live on the streets,’’ said Vicki Walker, Hyde Park’s minister of missions and outreach. “I understand God better, the Bible better and my faith better because of my friendships with people on the margins.
“People want me to pray with them. I always tell them, ‘Please pray for me and here’s how.’ We’re mutual. There’s no hierarchy here.’’
Seven years ago, a national study said Tampa-St. Petersburg had the country’s largest concentration of homeless people (57 per 10,000 people). In 2017, another study said Tampa’s homeless population had decreased by 15 percent, but that still meant approximately 1,500 citizens were on the streets or seeking a shelter.
Either way, Walker said, there’s a need that shouldn’t be ignored.
“There’s a lack of affordable housing in this community,’’ Walker said. “A community problem needs a community solution, and we’re one part of helping to feed people.
“My hope is there comes a day when we don’t need this ministry and we lock the doors. Everybody has got a safe place to stay. Everybody’s mental health needs are cared for. Their addictions are cared for. Their interest in employment are cared for. But we’re not there yet. Homelessness is very real, and everyone has a story.’’
The face of Tampa’s homeless can be seen each Sunday at Hyde Park. It’s black and white, male and female, young and old. It’s people battling addictions or chronic unemployment, even some who seemingly had it all.
Her name is Jane.
“I was a massage therapist,’’ she said. “When the economy went down, I lost so many clients. Massage is a luxury. I couldn’t afford my car insurance any more, then I lost my car. It all started downhill.
“I still have a house, although there’s a tarp on the roof and the door doesn’t work. But I’m grateful for what I have. And I’m grateful for this church. I come get the meals here. This man saves me a seat every week. He tells me has done horrible things in his life. But he’s nice to me.’’
His name is Robert.
“I’ve been coming here 11 years,’’ he said. “I enjoy the hospitality, the warmth and the love. It shows me that we need to help one another because we all have struggles.’’
Her name is Wendy.
“I’ve been clean for one year, four months, two days … you want the hours?’’ she said. “It was cocaine. I’ve been to jail twice. I just made the decision to stop, cold turkey, because I was almost at age 40. I didn’t want that stuff in my life any more. I haven’t looked back.
“So much has changed. I don’t use (cocaine) any more. I have a place to live and a job. I don’t need these (Open Arms Ministry) services, but this is like family here. They do so much for so many people.’’
Walker, who was spotted driving the streets in 2017 to make sure the area’s homeless people were safe as a hurricane approached Tampa, said she has been one of the biggest beneficiaries.
“This isn’t some big scary thing,’’ Walker said. “When you pull back the curtain and look, it’s just a guy, it’s just a girl. There are more families realizing what it’s like to be one paycheck away from this. There are people here with advanced degrees, careers, families, success … but somewhere it took a turn, and there were hard times.
“To me, the goal of this ministry is to make friends. We do it through the vehicle of food or clothes or conversation. When I’m in that room, I’m among friends.’’
—Joey Johnston is a freelance writer in Tampa.