TAMPA — Joseph Richemond spent most of 2016 in jail.
When he got out, he spent a few months living on the streets of Tampa. He had come here from Orlando with his sister in 2013, seeking a better life than his Haitian parents had, and gotten into trouble.
An accomplished break dancer, Richemond, 25, had dreams of going pro, but without a home or a job, he had no idea how to make that dream a reality.
By May 2017, Richemond was employed full time as a barista at the Portico Cafe, part of the Hyde Park United Methodist Church’s downtown Tampa branch. He suddenly had health care and money to pay the rent.
Now, Richemond is break dancing on the side; he’s even performed at Busch Gardens and Lowry Park Zoo. He volunteers every Monday, teaching break dancing classes to kids in the low-income University Area. He’s got his own place with roommates and is thinking about enrolling at a technical college.
He credits it all to his job at the Portico.
"Break dancing is all about creating your own moves, your own style, and this job has been like that for me," Richemond said. "It gave me the freedom to live my life how I want."
Creating a better life for Tampa’s homeless population was one of the tasks trusted to Justin LaRosa, minister of the church’s Portico campus.
Hyde Park United Methodist had a whole city block to work with, and no idea what to do with it.
"We knew we wanted to activate the block, not forget the poor, and be a gift to the city," said LaRosa, 45, a former alcoholic with ambitions of owning a bar before he had a "conversion experience" that helped him find God.
LaRosa came to Florida in 1994 to take a break from his pursuit of a hospitality degree. He never returned to his native Pittsburgh, deciding to stay and earn a degree in social work from the University of South Florida instead.
His background, including work with felons coming out of jail, made him the perfect choice to manage the Portico Cafe, which opened in May 2017 with five workers.
Four of them, including Richemond, successfully completed local programs designed to help them reenter the workforce after being homeless or in jail.
"I said to the church that I didn’t think the community needed another coffee shop, but it did need one with a mission," said LaRosa, who became a deacon in 2005.
The cafe’s adjoining worship space and event hall is open to nonprofit groups, artists and musicians, social interest groups and community service projects.
In addition to a Sunday night church service, there are weekly meditation sessions, yoga, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, open mic nights, and even a chorus welcome to those with disabilities.
"Anything that enhances the city’s social, artistic or spiritual fabric is welcome," LaRosa said.
The cafe, boasting menu items created by a former Oxford Exchange chef, has experienced zero turnover since its opening. The same five workers that opened it on day one are all still there.
They are paid $13.50 per hour, well above Florida’s new minimum wage of $8.25 per hour.
"It was a challenging way to start a business, but we’re making it work," LaRosa said.
LaRosa wants people to know that they can come in for a cup of coffee without fear of being pressured to join his congregation.
"While we’re not hiding the fact that there’s a church behind this, it’s not a bait and switch," he said. "I believe in all of what we do, I’m unabashedly Christian. But this is primarily a gathering place, so come in and be part of the change."
Richemond believes that the Portico has changed the way people view the homeless.
"When folks come in and find out what we’re trying to do here, they’re really happy about it," he said. "It kind of changes their point of view — they want to help."
The Tampa Bay area had the highest homelessness rate in the nation in 2012, according to a report by the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, but those rates have dropped every year since.
There was a 15 percent decrease in people living on the streets between 2016 and 2017, according to the report, but there were still more than 1,500 men, women and children without homes in Hillsborough County alone.
"These are problems that aren’t going away," LaRosa said. "Everyone deserves dignity, and we are called as a community and as citizens to engage these issues and figure out how to be part of the solution."
Richemond spends a lot of his free time at the Portico campus, participating in open mic nights and church activities. He’s sure he would still be on the streets, or worse, without the Portico.
"There is so much positive energy here, so many great people, and nobody tries to make anyone feel less than they are," he said. "I know my future is brighter now."
Contact Libby Baldwin at [email protected] Follow her at @LibBaldwin.