Metropolitan Ministries opened its cafeteria doors to all dads on Sunday, hosting an early-morning Father's Day pancake breakfast. The organizers wanted to celebrate not only the fathers who live at the Florida Avenue homeless shelter, but also any who wished to visit the 80 or so children who live there with their mothers.
No "outside" fathers showed.
But another kind of dad attended the breakfast: single with kids. It's rare, but it happens, said Ana Mendez, public relations coordinator at Metropolitan Ministries, one of few shelters in the area that will accept homeless fathers with children.
Currently, the shelter houses three single dads with kids. Here are their stories.
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Tim Atwood worked in construction and retail jobs and, at one time, made a pretty decent living as a self-employed contractor in Lakeland. But in June of 2000, his wife "went crazy and ran away," leaving him with a 3-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son.
"I had to learn everything quick," he said. "I'd never changed diapers or anything."
He also had to learn how to stop their bleeding. Both were born with hemophilia, a rare disorder that prevents blood from clotting. He often had to take time off work to pick them up from school or day care when they had bleeding episodes.
The children's medical bills, which have included blood transfusions and surgeries, drove him into bankruptcy, he said. Employers became less and less sympathetic to his parenting woes.
Atwood, 45, went to Metropolitan Ministries in April, bringing his tiny, fragile children with him. They share three beds in a small, dorm-style room. Sarah, 11, and David, 9, attend Ybor City's Academy Prep Center, where they tested into gifted programs, he said. Sarah loves art and music and constantly scribbles her thoughts into a pink diary. David loves math and blowing up the world in video games.
There's less shame in being homeless when you pour every penny and ounce of energy into your kids, Atwood said.
"All my treasure," he said, "is in these two little bodies."
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Patrick Gravette has always loved taking care of his daughter, whom he calls "Boo." He's been her primary caretaker since she was an infant. Boo's mother, now deceased, had a drinking and drug problem, he says.
Lately, though, Boo has been a handful. She's 12, a growing wild child stuck between tomboy and pretty teenager. She's devoted to her dad, who fell on hard times recently when demand for his work as a contractor dried up. Last week, the two moved out of their two-bedroom apartment in the University area and into the shelter.
"She's a real good kid," Gravette said as he watched her giggle and walk off with a visiting friend. Later, he noticed her writing, "Help Me Please" into the condensation on the cafeteria windows. He dragged her back to his table, where she pouted. Wearily, he let her return to her friends.
"I'm glad for her independence," he said. "But there are problems that come with it."
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A self-described workaholic, Earl Williams never thought he'd be unemployed at age 43. Four years ago, he was in a car accident that shattered his legs.
He now walks with a cane, but as a former robotics operator for Mack Trucks, he couldn't return to work. His disability payments couldn't offset his debt, and he lost his home. He has been in the shelter for two years while getting computer certification training at the nearby Erwin Technical Center.
Williams has an adult son and two teenage children. His 17-year-old son wanted to stay with an aunt instead of at the shelter, and Williams understood. "Kids can be cruel," he said.
His 13-year-old daughter Ebonee, though, stuck with him. He's a cool dad, she said, even when he lectures her about boys or grades.
"When he makes me mad, after he's done with his speech, he tries to make me laugh," she said.
He only hopes he gets through to her. "I tell her to set her own goals, don't set her standards low because she's black or a woman," he said. He hopes to lead by example.
"They told me I'd never walk again," he said. "And I did."
Emily Nipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3431.