Michael Stewart had always cooked a Thanksgiving turkey for his family — until this year. The Ybor City cook lost his job in August, and shortly after became homeless. This holiday, he woke up wondering whether he'd find anything to eat at all. "It's like there was no hope," said Stewart, 44, who moved to Tampa with his wife, Sabrina, in 2005 after they lost their New Orleans home during Hurricane Katrina. "It hit me hard. It was worse than Katrina."
But Stewart said God answered his prayers when someone pointed the couple to Metropolitan Ministries, where hundreds of people gathered for a free Thanksgiving Day feast.
"God just blessed me," said Stewart, who sat within sight of a giant banner that read, "Hope Lives Here."
All across the Tampa Bay region, people in need gathered for Thanksgiving meals provided by local charities.
Metropolitan Ministries also partnered with organizations in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk counties to distribute more than 3,500 meals, said spokeswoman Ana Mendez.
"We let everybody eat until they can't eat anymore," she said.
Charities throughout the bay area have reported increased demand for services as the economy worsens. At Tampa-based Metropolitan Ministries, Mendez said, about 5,000 first-time families have applied for assistance this year.
Even people who once donated are now knocking on the door for help, she said.
At St. Vincent de Paul in St. Petersburg, officials expected to feed up to 600 people Thursday, compared to a usual crowd of about 350.
Organizers reported seeing more working poor than in previous years.
Amber Eubanks, 27, of St. Petersburg showed up at St. Vincent with her two children, ages 7 and 8, after she lost her job two weeks ago at a Subway restaurant. The family lost its apartment and now lives at a shelter.
Since losing her job, Eubanks said, she had worried about providing her kids with a special meal for Thanksgiving until a friend suggested St. Vincent's.
"We had food," she said. "But it wasn't Thanksgiving food. We would have eaten chicken or something."
Gov. Charlie Crist made an appearance at St. Vincent with his fiancee, Carole Rome, and handed out plates stacked with turkey, potatoes and stuffing.
"There are an awful lot of people hurting," Crist said.
Ted Brown, 44, of St. Petersburg said a run of bad luck at the poker table left him looking for a meal on the holiday.
"I need a bankroll right now," Brown said. "I know I'll rebound next month."
Gregory Clarke, 58, came to a Thanksgiving meal at St. Vincent's 20 years ago during a spell of tough times. Today, he's doing well and volunteered to help out.
He has words of advice for those coming for their first charity meal.
"I tell them I was in their seat 20 years ago," the St. Petersburg city building inspector said. "There is a way. You've just go to work at it and struggle through these tough times. It will get better."
A meal at the Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ in St. Petersburg was expected to attract about 300 people, up about 50 from last year, organizers said.
About 30 turkeys and 70 pounds of mashed potatoes were prepared.
Unemployed, John Anderson, 61, came for the fellowship provided by others in the same situation.
"We keep each other up," Anderson said. "We don't have to feel we're alone. We don't have to feel like we're falling."
Back at Metropolitan Ministries, Joy Gallant said she felt like her luck was finally turning around.
For the first time in three years, Gallant spent Thanksgiving with her 3-year-old son, Aaron, and 6-year-old daughter, Faith. Her children have been in foster care and the family is in the process of being reunified, she said.
"I just want to cry every time I think about it," said Gallant, 33, who described herself as "chronically homeless."
She said she recently graduated with a certificate as a behavioral health technician and won a $5,000 scholarship to continue her education. Gallant says she plans to use the money toward earning a bachelor's degree in addiction science.
"Things are absolutely fabulous," Gallant said. "I'm going back to school, and soon we're going to be a self-sufficient family."