Thursday, January 18, 2018
Business

Cafe that feeds the homeless loses South Tampa location

TAMPA — A longtime volunteer sat at the door of the Faith Café and stopped homeless guests as they were rushing out into the blistering sun after lunch.

"Just a minute," Clyde Barr said.

Like a school mom stopping her children from running to catch a bus, he handed them a bologna sandwich in a paper bag.

In South Tampa, a place where the cries for last year's panhandling restrictions sounded the loudest, the Faith Café is one of the few places where homeless people are welcomed, fed, even mothered.

But that ends today when the café moves, leaving a permanent void for the hungry.

"I think it's really heartbreaking," said volunteer Kerimarie Cordero, 23. "These people have come here for years and it's being dismissed as unimportant."

The café began when Palma Ceia Presbyterian, Christ the King Catholic, St. Mary's Episcopal and Good Shepherd Lutheran approached property owner James Mikes about opening a soup kitchen at 3702 W Kennedy Blvd. For 11 years or so he obliged, letting the café operate rent-free to serve lunches six times a week in a beat-up recreation hall.

But this year, Mikes is pushing forward with plans to develop the 10 lots the café sits on. He hopes to break ground within 90 days on a complex that will include lofts, Cevíche, BurgerFi, Tijuana Flats and Brass Tap.

Neighbors had complained about homeless people loitering, sleeping on the property and sometimes leering at women, he said.

"It isn't monitored as much as it should be," said Mikes, whose law office sits behind the Faith Café. "It's just time. For everything, there's a season for it and the season has passed."

The decision forced the café to expedite its plans to build a 2,600-square-foot permanent home north of Kennedy Boulevard at 1340 Clearview Ave.

The $300,000 project has all the permits it needs, Faith Café board president Aubrey Smith said, but has raised less than half of what's needed in donations and construction supplies.

Meanwhile, the soup kitchen has searched unsuccessfully for a temporary home in South Tampa.

The café operates on an annual budget of about $17,000 and relies entirely on volunteers and Metropolitan Ministries, which provides the meals.

"Everyone wants the homeless fed," Smith said, "but they don't want them fed anywhere near around them."

First Presbyterian Church downtown is considering letting the café operate there, but Smith said nothing has been finalized. Still, volunteers at the café have been telling guests to ride a bus or bike there beginning next week.

"Honey, I love you," Melissa Hall, 61, said while hugging a guest wearing headphones. "We'll be downtown."

With a towel over her shoulder and a tie-dyed apron around her waist, she wept thinking about "Billy" and "Ray from New York" and her other favorites, wondering how they'll be able to eat.

Nearby, her husband, retired Hillsborough County sheriff's Maj. Tom Hall, served meals to men he may have helped confine when he ran the Falkenburg Road Jail.

Coming up the aisle, another volunteer poured ice-cold glasses of water and pink lemonade, his gray shirt soaked with sweat.

The small hall relies on a giant fan for air circulation. Its linoleum is rust-colored and worn. But guests notice the little touches of dignity volunteers provide, like the linen tablecloths and table settings with fake flowers.

"This place means a lot to me," said Luis Rosario, 21. "Without it, I'd be starving. They've been so kind so much."

All around him, trays of bagels, doughnuts, muffins and cookies were free for the taking. The kitchen passed out plates of Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans and bowls of chunky beef vegetable stew.

"You can get as much as you want, eat as much as you want," said guest Johnnie Cawthon, 44. "It's all about having a loving heart."

Volunteer Melissa Hall hopes someone in the community will step up with that, as the Faith Café looks to nail down a temporary home.

"Where is the compassion?" she asked.

Justin George can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3368.

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