TAMPA — For seven years, Jerome Clemons was homeless on the streets of downtown Tampa. Whether it was shivering cold, searing heat or not knowing about his next meal or the threat of danger, Clemons was driven by one thought.
“I kept my faith in God,’’ Clemons said. “I felt like something better was going to happen.’’
Something better did happen.
|A welcoming sign outside The Portico.|
Clemons used to sleep outside of the former First United Methodist Church, which was discontinued in 2011. The buildings have been renovated and transformed into The Portico, a church campus that is now operated by nearby Hyde Park United Methodist Church.
In May, it celebrated its one-year anniversary.
The Portico holds a non-traditional worship service with Rev. Justin LaRosa on Sunday nights, but also serves as a social venue, a lifeline for the homeless, an event space for nonprofit organizations and a gathering place for artists, theatre groups and yoga classes.
It also has an upbeat coffee shop, The Portico Cafe, where the downtown crowd might grab some lunch. It employs five formerly homeless people who are achieving self-sufficiency.
Clemons is one of the baristas.
“Everybody has a story,’’ Clemons said. “It’s not always a bad story. I was unemployed. I had too much pride to ask for help. My only option was the streets. It’s a hard, hard life out there. I know these streets well.
“But now, I’ve got a job. It’s stable and secure. I’ve got benefits and everything. This place has helped me turn it around. It’s nothing but blessings.’’
The blessings emerged from what looked like a sad situation.
The First United Methodist Church was actually Tampa’s first formal church of any kind. It was established in 1846, before Tampa was even a city. The driftwood building was leveled two years later by a hurricane, but was quickly rebuilt, then relocated in 1890, where it lasted until another renovation in 1968.
Once, it was thriving. There were three packed worship services every Sunday.
As more churches opened in the suburbs, the number of worshipers shrank until, with only a few dozen worshipers around for its final days, the doors were finally closed in 2011.
But not for good.
It’s different now.
Bob Douglass, The Portico’s chief administrator, calls it “an event venue that happens to have a church service on Sunday night.’’
The main sanctuary’s traditional pews are gone, replaced by round tables and an open, welcoming feel. There’s a call for conversation, meditation, reading through Bible verses and even the debate prompted from a question of the day. Every month, there’s a pot-luck dinner.
“People from every background imaginable are at those services,’’ Douglass said. “A few weeks ago, a man stood up to say how thrilled he was to be here. He had just been released after 43 years in prison. He said he felt God’s love.
|The pews have been removed and replaced by roundtables at The Portico.|
“This is a place where people truly do feel comfortable and loved, whether it’s in the cafe, doing yoga or at worship. There’s a feeling of acceptance. Everyone is welcome. We don’t weed people out based on their beliefs. We don’t say, ‘You can come in if you’re ready to join the church or believe everything in the Bible.’ If you’re struggling, well, we have a lot of people who are struggling. We’re willing to let you grow and see what it’s all about.’’
Chalette Davis, The Portico’s coordinator of events and missions, has spent more than two decades in the event-planning field. But she has never experienced anything like the rewards of her current position.
“We see that second chances matter,’’ Davis said. “We’re paying people a respectable wage and giving them a valuable opportunity (to work in the cafe). There has been virtually no turnover. All we’ve really had to stand on is the reputation of the people who put this project together, then someone telling a friend, who tells another friend. I think the future is amazing.’’
For Reginald Battle, a Portico barista for the past year, the present is equally amazing.
He was imprisoned in Polk County for more than three years after being convicted of selling drugs. He used that time to consider a plan to improve his life.
He found The Portico.
“Working here has been beautiful,’’ Battle said. “I’m in a positive environment, and I love the people. I owe my life to this program and the Hyde Park United Methodist Church.
“I used to have a job, but I got greedy. I wanted more and (selling) drugs got me there. They say whether you're using them or selling them, they’re still controlling you. Well, that’s over. God brought me here. It’s a really nice place to be. You give somebody a chance, no telling what might happen.’’
That notion is evident from the moment anyone walks through The Portico’s front doors.
Homeless outreach is a priority at Hyde Park’s campus and at The Portico.
At Hyde Park, breakfast is provided for some 200 poor and homeless people each Sunday morning. There are programs for free dental work, haircuts and clothes, plus training and preparation for job interviews.
There are more plans to raise awareness of the homeless population, possibly by listing the names of people who die on Tampa’s streets or providing a constantly updated count of the city’s homeless people.
“The thing is, most of the time nobody knows about these people or necessarily cares about them. Raising awareness helps,” Douglass said. “We are trying to do something different. We’re getting people out of that cycle by allowing them to earn enough income to survive and break away from homelessness. We have seen results.’’
At The Portico, the results are seen on a daily basis.
“Growing up, my grandmother made me go to church,’’ Clemons said. “I pulled away from it at some point. But now it has a greater meaning for me. Faith saved my life.’’
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—Joey Johnston is a freelance writer based in Tampa.