On any given Wednesday outside the Salvation Army building in Tampa Heights, scores of homeless men and women lean against the fence or gather in small groups shouting hellos and quietly chatting. They talk about trying to find day labor. They talk about where they're headed next.
A man in a worn green jacket walks from group to group freely, carrying a leather-bound planner. He tells the homeless his name — Lee Hoffman — and offers information about getting off the streets.
On a recent day, Hoffman approached a man he had helped find housing, lightly haranguing him for the way he was dressed. He told the man that it's easier to stay off the streets if you look like you don't belong there.
He offered to help the man find the right agencies to get an identification card.
On small scraps of paper Hoffman wrote his new cell phone number and handed it out.
The scene has become a trademark for Hoffman, who is becoming an outspoken advocate for the homeless in local circles. He lives in North Tampa but catches rides or takes the bus downtown at least three times a week to help where they congregate.
He has no food or housing to give, but he does have firsthand knowledge of their struggle. He tells the homeless that he understands what they're going through. Not long ago, he had to hustle every day. Just like them.
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Hoffman's trip from a life of habitual arrests to homeless advocacy started in February 2007.
For years he lived the life of a hardened biker, says Hoffman, 49. In and out of prison, his rap sheet was long and his temper was hot. His arrests include charges of larceny, theft, possession of cocaine and probation violations, according to law enforcement records.
He says he became homeless in 2005 after coming home to find his wife with another man and beating him up. Assault charges were dropped, although he says a restraining order wasn't.
He stayed at friends' houses but soon wore out his welcome. He slept under an overpass and then in an abandoned apartment. He worked as a maintenance man for a while but soon encountered more trials and became fed up with the life he lived.
Then, last year, he says God called upon him to become a street preacher. Hoffman, who had been arrested less than a month earlier, walked into New Beginnings of Tampa, where he had met members of the church and been exposed to their teachings, and asked for a job as a minister. Leaders hired him in exchange for housing.
"If you would've told me then that I'd be doing this, I would say, 'What? You're smoking some good dope I'd like to get a hold of,' " Hoffman said.
At New Beginnings, near the University area, church leaders helped Hoffman to control his temper and shake his dependency on drugs.
Soon, he was helping other church members feed the homeless on weekends near an Army/Navy surplus store on Tampa Street.
The church's pastor, Tom Atchison, brought Hoffman with him to speak about homelessness before city, county and state officials. They pushed for a voice mail system and IDs for the homeless to make it easier for them to find jobs and help.
"He was very articulate," Atchison said. "We would go down to City Council or to the county commissioners. We would both speak, but he seemed to have a charismatic ability to really reach them."
For many, Hoffman served as an example of the type of success he was trying to sell — staying off the streets and gaining the respect of other advocates.
Hoffman has since left New Beginnings and now lives in transitional housing in North Tampa run by Gregory Lockett, a former pastor at New Beginnings. To support himself, Hoffman does odd jobs, such as carpentry.
"I'm impressed and proud of him and want to see him go farther," Lockett said. "We butted heads at first, but he's doing very well."
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Back in Tampa Heights, Hoffman arrives at the weekly free lunch next to the surplus store. As he walks through the crowd, people recognize him. "God bless you, brother!" some shout.
After they finish eating, Hoffman stands up to preach.
His message is simple. He tells the people to focus on their small daily accomplishments, to focus on the positive.
"Preach it, preacher!" a bald man with a long black and gray beard yells during the sermon.
"He inspires hope, and I think one of the biggest, hardest battles we have to get people off the street is giving them hope, direction and vision," said Atchison.
Because of his connection with the homeless, Hoffman notices need when others don't.
For instance, he saw more than 100 homeless people eating without tables or chairs during a weekly event at Hyde Park United Methodist, where various churches collaborate to feed them. They would listen to a sermon sitting on the ground. They ate meals sitting on curbs.
He called Atchison. They loaded up a truck and brought tables and chairs to the next dinner.
Estelle Wolfman, a coordinator for the Crossing Church who helps with the event, says Hoffman is helpful.
"If we hear someone is in need in a certain area, we will bring Lee in on it," Wolfman said. "He knows the routines. He knows the shelters. He relates to them, having been there."
Hoffman has met with area churches and the Hillsborough County Homeless Coalition, offering his advice and contacts. He constantly networks, adding to his "magic list" of more than 230 agencies offering services for the down and out.
He was recognized last month by the Homeless Coalition, receiving the Homeless Hero award. He appreciated the recognition but says he doesn't serve the homeless for accolades.
"Don't be proud of me; be proud of what I can do for God," Hoffman said. "It's all about getting these guys help."
Joshua Neiderer can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.