BRANDON — It was a cold January day, around lunchtime, when the old man knocked on the door of the Women's Resource Center of Tampa Bay.
Tired and hungry, he was all alone. The past two years, he had been living in his blue Buick, sleeping upright in his car in a Walmart parking lot.
He was dressed in soiled and tattered clothing, flies and insects swarmed his body.
The woman at the door was kind. She asked him what he needed.
"Something to eat," he said.
Robin Dunbar, a volunteer for the Women's Resource Center, invited him in. He said his name was Warren, but nothing else. He sat in a chair while Dunbar placed three days worth of sustenance into a paper sack from the center's food pantry. She chose items easily eaten in a car: canned ravioli, tuna fish, Vienna sausages and Pop Tarts.
Dunbar told him to come back if he needed anything else.
Here at the Women's Resource Center, located on the grounds of Baylife Church on Kingsway Road, staff and volunteers help single mothers who struggle to care for themselves and their children.
Owner Cheryl English opened the center in 2003 after going through a low point in her life: becoming a divorced mother of two. The center has become the resource she wished existed when she needed help — a compassionate place that also offers hope.
The center provides shelter, food and clothing and assists women in finding jobs — all free of charge. Caseworkers stick with them until they can survive on their own. Sometimes, the journey can take years. Still, they turn no woman away.
If men seek help, the center refers them to other agencies like the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County or the Salvation Army.
But on this day, the mysterious man touched Dunbar's heart. She told English about the encounter, not expecting to ever see him again. But the next week, he returned. Again, he said little. Volunteers packed him more food. Warren stopped by weekly over several months, offering up details of his life with each visit.
Warren Karpp was 69 years old and a former DJ born in Michigan. He spent much of his adult life in Los Angeles and ended up in Florida when he got a radio gig. He is divorced and has no family. As he grew older, he became ill and found himself all alone. His Social Security check paid for a few nights in a motel room each month, but little else.
So he lived in his Buick that he bought for $600 from a Sarasota mechanic. He passed his time listening to talk radio and stopping at churches, looking for food.
English assigned a case manager to Karpp, much like she did with all of the single mothers who knocked on the center's door. They learned that Karpp had served some time in the military so they completed paperwork to get him medical help from the VA. He has received treatment for a life-threatening kidney condition and is now in a nursing facility in Plant City.
Volunteers at the center say he's upbeat and chatty and, far different from the shy, old man who walked into the center earlier this year.
"I thank God for organizations like the Women's Resource Center," Karpp said. "They are so nice and go out of their way to listen to me."
Agencies like the resource center aid the helpless everyday without much attention or fanfare. They rely on donations and government aid to offer their services. About 80 percent of the center's budget comes from donations and fundraising.
When it opened, the center helped about 150 single mothers and their children the first year. Today, the center does that much work in a single month.
Karpp knows he can never repay them for saving his life. But his friendship and the experience has offered English something great.
Each Wednesday at the Women's Resource Center of Tampa Bay is now "Men's Day." Men can show up to get counseling, food, clothing and their own case manager who will see to it that they get back on their feet.
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at [email protected]