A soup kitchen that opened in September is drawing more patrons than ever. Area churches launched the I Am Hope Cafe to fill what they saw as a void — too many people who could not afford to eat, some with roofs over their heads and some without.
While no one seems to be complaining about the kitchen, the same cannot be said for some of those who ate there and were later charged with illegal camping, drug use and assault.
The cafe serves three evening meals a week at the First Baptist Church of Mango, on E Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The number of diners has doubled to about 65 for each meal since the cafe opened, director Vince Ferraro said.
"We're seeing more homeless coming from the Tampa area," Ferraro said. "And obviously, we're seeing some coming down from up North, where it's colder."
The church has added a converted race car trailer equipped with six shower stalls, plus a washer and dryer. On the other side of the dining room, where cooks served beef stew and corn last Friday, a handful of men and women waited in line for warm clothing from a closet of donated items.
Apart from a single complaint about people sleeping on the church grounds, the cafe hasn't caused a stir in Seffner, Ferraro said. But some of the cafe's regular customers have run afoul of the law, in part for their living conditions.
On Dec. 10, Hillsborough sheriff's deputies arrested 10 men and three women for living in woods behind Advance Auto Parts at 11850 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. All in the group were charged with illegal camping and later released.
The arrests were incidental and not an orchestrated raid, said Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Debbie Carter.
Two other men who were camping in the same woods in November, when they spoke with a Times reporter, have since been arrested on more serious charges. Douglas Bedard, 54, was charged with possessing and trafficking oxycodone. He is being held at the Orient Road Jail on $352,000 bail.
Jason Yohn, 33, was charged with four counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and is being held on $19,000 bail.
That kind of news doesn't surprise businessman Leroy Gonzalez, a lifelong Seffner resident who owns numerous rental properties.
"They were a bunch of alcoholics and drunkards in there," said Gonzalez, 71. "The ones that are in this area, they're homeless because they want to be homeless."
Courtland Hunt, who set up his Liberty Tax Service office on King Boulevard in December, said he saw people almost immediately who appeared to be homeless.
He launched a series of initiatives to help, including paying for all cleaning at a coin laundry for one hour and offering free tax return preparation.
After being approached by one man for help, Hunt hired him to mix concrete and patch holes in the driveway of his business.
The business was subsequently robbed of $1,000, Hunt said. The man who helped him left his belongings in the office and never retrieved them.
"I'm not down on homeless people because of it," said Hunt, 27, although he said the incident has made him hesitant to employ strangers who stop by.
A Valrico native who lives in Riverview, Hunt thinks there is something different about Seffner.
"I can't figure out why there are so many homeless people in Seffner," he said. "Maybe it's because of the small community. Business owners are more charitable, whereas if they were in Tampa or St. Pete, people are a lot more hardened."
Craig Angross, 47, has slept in his truck since being laid off from his job as a cook three months ago. He feels safer there than in the woods or in Tampa.
"If you go to Tampa, you can get beat up because you're homeless," Angross said.
Queen Lindsey, 57, was one of three women arrested for illegal camping behind Advance Auto Parts. After being held for 13 days and released, she moved to another wooded area in Seffner.
A year ago, Lindsey said, she was holding down three jobs to pay $900 a month for a three-bedroom apartment. Now she depends on day labor, which isn't enough to put a roof over her head.
"If you lose what you got, where can you go?" she said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (813) 661-2431 or [email protected]