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'That urge to love people just doesn't go away,' but street-feeding couple has new doubts

CLEARWATER

With $15 in sandwiches and chips, about as much as she could spare, a young house cleaner and her two little girls walked up to a group of homeless people in Crest Lake Park.

It had taken a few days to build up the courage. She worried that she might look silly. But that day in November 2009, with an Aldi grocery bag of white bread and cold cuts and Doritos, she said for the first time what would become a common refrain:

"Are you hungry?"

On a recent Tuesday, Linawa Shaffer and her girls stood in a weed-choked lot in the fading light of another evening feeding. Men and women lined up wordlessly at a folding table and its bounty: two pans of salmon loaf.

It was raining. Two reformed Christian bikers, nicknamed Animal and Chaplain Gene, were standing sentinel, glowering at a drunken man arguing on a bicycle. People sat on curbs around the downtown lot and hunched over soggy plates to feast. The food vanished within 10 minutes.

Shaffer kneeled at the side of an older woman in a motorized wheelchair who had dropped her cup of baked beans on the asphalt and was struggling desperately to retrieve them with a plastic fork.

"Food is a great way to show someone you love them," Shaffer said. "That urge to love people just doesn't go away."

For this, Shaffer has been dubbed a renegade: one of a loose band of charities, churches and good Samaritans running street feedings and soup kitchens in downtown Clearwater and beyond.

In recent months city leaders, clamping down on urban "enablers" of the homeless, have assailed the free handouts and pushed to shift feedings to central cafeterias and shelters.

"No one has ever graduated" from the streets "because they were fed on a street corner," said Robert Marbut, Clearwater's homelessness consultant. "Food alone does not get you out of homelessness."

On this, many homeless advocates agree. A meal without a bed, a case worker or a job fragments the scant supply of donations and keeps people from seeking help. All those good Samaritans, they say, may be making the problem worse.

Street-feeding organizers have so far squared their shoulders, saying they'll keep offering food to the homeless, the vulnerable and the working poor as long as the need remains. Theirs is a spiritual mission, apart from politics and not easily suppressed.

As for Shaffer, the young house cleaner whose big-hearted feedings have become a part of her life?

More and more, she's questioning whether what she's doing is right.

• • •

Linawa Shaffer and her husband, Josh, are 30 and sport tattoos. They live with daughters Rainna, 8, and Lillian, 5, in a home in Palm Harbor adorned with surfboards, canvas paintings and a 1967 Mustang hood on which Josh, an artist, airbrushed Linawa's likeness. They have one pet, Lizzie, a red bearded dragon.

They are not a portrait of doting church ladies. They both have their own troubled pasts they say help them identify with outcasts. So when they began venturing beyond Crest Lake Park for their street feedings, it felt like a natural progression.

They pulled up to groups of the down-and-out with meals in plastic foam. They planned for bigger crowds at the end of the month, when disability checks ran out. Their daughters would come along and run and play while the food was being served.

The food was far from fancy. Canned goods — from chicken to corn to beans — became a staple for thrift and ease. Slow cookers churned out beef stews and pulled pork with artless consistency.

When people on the street recognized the Shaffers driving up, they alerted others with a code: "Someone's got love for us."

Outside of meals, the Shaffers began giving away sleeping bags and blankets, including a pink girls' comforter they later saw warming a man downtown. It was never just about the food, Josh said, but about letting "them think that maybe someone cares."

But street feedings can be messy, disorganized affairs, without kitchens or bathrooms or shelter from the elements. Most ingredients are donated and cooked en masse by volunteer chefs, well meaning but rawly trained. Meals are offered "first come, first served," which can sometimes lead to violence.

"I've seen guys fight like dogs over a sandwich," Josh Shaffer said.

Due to slim budgets and neighborhood pressure, local feedings are often as transient as their clientele. G.R.A.C.E. Chapel, a Tarpon Springs day center offering breakfasts and showers, was scheduled to close Friday due to a drop in donations.

Tampa's church-run Faith Cafe for the homeless, located on free land for 11 years, was forced to move late last month because the landlord wants to redevelop the property with lofts and restaurants.

Clearwater officials want to concentrate feedings of the homeless in mid-county at Safe Harbor, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office shelter next to the county jail. Meals there are organized by Tampa-based Metropolitan Ministries.

But local feeding leaders say moving out of the city limits to a location 10 miles from downtown would be a burden for the poor, who work nearby jobs, and the local homeless, who have few options for traveling cross-county.

The St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen in the East Gateway neighborhood, which has served the hungry for 30 years, refused a city nudge last year to move to Safe Harbor's kitchen. The reason: "Regard for our clients."

City leaders later discussed discouraging the soup kitchen's big food donors, effectively cutting the kitchen's supply line. The idea, officials said, was later shelved because of a public outcry against it.

Bans or strict rules on street feedings have been passed, and often challenged, in New York City, Houston, Dallas and Las Vegas. A ban in Philadelphia, temporarily halted by a judge, has elicited pledges from churches that they will break the law if the ban is upheld.

In Orlando, where a feeding law has been ruled constitutional in court, charities have turned to drive-by feedings, in which meals are provided in secret to keep police off their trail. Leaders in St. Petersburg have considered a similar ban. Clearwater leaders, so far, have not.

But as the Shaffers' street feedings continued on for months, they found keeping the meals in motion was difficult. They had good intentions and a growing outlet for their kindness. But when, they wondered, were good intentions not enough?

As the Shaffers' clientele increased, so did their stress. They bought an electric can opener, sought donors on Craigs­list and coordinated with members of their church "life group" for a disorganized feeding at the Main Library downtown.

Once a labor of love, cooking and serving and cleaning after work had morphed into a chore. Some nights, after serving full dinners to a hungry crowd, the Shaffers, exhausted, would stop for pizza on the way home.

They remained driven, and many of their diners remained thankful, but the stress and doubts and expectations began to take their toll. One man tried to make them feel guilty when they skipped serving during a storm. Another chastised them as naive to think "these people" are going to change.

Meeting new people with needs they could meet was a gratifying feeling, though sometimes tough to bear. During one serving, they recognized a classmate from middle school, homeless and fresh from prison: "I'm not good anymore," he cried. "I don't feel good about myself."

But perhaps most daunting were the regulars at the feedings who seemed satisfied with staying on the street.

"A lot of them are being enabled," Josh Shaffer said. "I'd rather help people who want to help themselves."

In the past several months, Linawa Shaffer has considered handing off the responsibility of meals to someone else. She gets so busy sometimes she "can't even look at people's faces" — a sign, she said, that her original purpose has gone off track.

She doesn't know what she'd like to do next: perhaps street ministry, or volunteering at Safe Harbor. She still believes "it's definitely a calling," but she wants to see whether she can give something with more impact than a single meal.

The Shaffers skipped the past couple of Tuesdays. They're trying to focus more on dinners together, as a family. But sometimes, when driving past a stranger, the girls will ask if there's any food in the car.

"It just seems normal to them," Josh Shaffer said. "I don't see how that can be bad."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@tampabay.com.

'That urge to love people just doesn't go away,' but street-feeding couple has new doubts 08/04/12 [Last modified: Saturday, August 4, 2012 1:02pm]

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