On the sidewalks along Florida Avenue just north of downtown Tampa, people gather under the noonday sun. Many carry ragged bedrolls strapped to their backs.
They are talking or smoking or heading toward one of the nearby buildings, places to get a hot meal or a bed or just help — help obtaining a legal ID card that is a giant step toward becoming part of the regular world, help with a bill, help with a job.
As I'm driving by, I see the marquee in front of Metropolitan Ministries. It sounds like a plea: URGENTLY NEED PEANUT BUTTER.
Metropolitan Ministries is one of those places people tend to think of at Thanksgiving, when volunteers line up to help feed the hungry, or Christmas, when the thought of children without toys or families without a Christmas meal tends to hit home. At the holidays, donations get steady enough that they set up a big tent here with a super-efficient drive-through manned by enthusiastic volunteers. To donate food or toys or clothes or checks, you don't even have to get out of your car.
Summer is different. Summer can be long and hot and dry. This could be one of the driest yet.
The ministries is home to about 40 families who live in dormitory-style concrete block rooms as they work to get back on their feet. There is a two-month waiting list. As many as 150 people find their way here every day for anything from groceries to health care to help finding a job, up a good 20 percent from last year.
People wait outside in the shade or inside in the cool lobby. Children in dirty T-shirts chase each other around, and grownups who look just shy of homeless sit waiting to be called to see a counselor. I also notice a guy in a workman's uniform with his name stitched over the pocket, and across the room, a woman in doctor's office scrubs.
"It is more the working poor we're seeing," says ministries spokeswoman Ana Mendez. More cars repossessed, more homes in foreclosure.
Deeper inside the building is a market. "Clients" who qualify get a voucher to pick out cereal and cake mix and other groceries from neatly stacked shelves instead of being handed a generic food basket. A woman who is just out of a domestic violence shelter and has found a place for her family to rent is getting food here today. Prices are going higher and higher, she says. She hunted down milk 10 cents cheaper than usual at Wal-Mart. Her kids can go through a gallon a day.
"They're saying everything is going up," says Emma Colon, a volunteer in the market. "Gas, food, everything but their salary."
Even the volunteers who pick up meals here to be served at churches and centers as far away as Pinellas and Polk counties worry these days about the price of the trip.
Why peanut butter, I ask.
Protein, they tell me. It's nutritious and filling, it's portable, it can go on bread or crackers, kids like it, and it lasts. And they don't have enough. Canned fruit is running a close second.
The other day I was standing in an aisle in Publix, complaining to myself about the price of the bottle of olive oil in my hand. A woman I didn't know heard me and commiserated — terrible, isn't it? And we each wheeled away with one in our carts.
You can contact Metropolitan Ministries at (813) 209-1000 or metromin.org.