TAMPA — For nearly 10 years, the nonprofit Trinity Cafe has welcomed the homeless, the down-and-out and the working poor to a free, restaurant-quality lunch.
The chef once cooked at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York, and guests eat at cloth-covered tables set with china dishes and silverware. The idea is to offer not just a good meal, but respect and dignity.
Now the charity has bought property for a permanent home of its own. But it is not getting the same sort of welcome.
That's because Trinity plans to move to the historic V.M. Ybor neighborhood, a place with problems of its own.
Just north of Ybor City, the working-class neighborhood has 800 homes, some impeccably restored 1920s bungalows, others in desperate need of repair.
It also has well-documented problems with drug-dealing, prostitution and a rash of arsons.
Residents say they empathize with the problems of the homeless, but doubt that adding up to 200 homeless people to the neighborhood five days a week will help efforts to fight crime.
"I'm just concerned about bringing in a possible at-risk population," said Kelly Bailey, vice president of the V.M. Ybor Neighborhood Association, which opposes the move. "It's no secret the problems we already have."
Nor will the cafe — described by residents as a soup kitchen — help bring in new business to make Nebraska Avenue less seedy.
There's more, residents say.
Unlike now, with the cafe using space at the Salvation Army on N Florida Avenue, Trinity's new location is not as close to the kind of social service agencies that could help its clients with their problems.
Residents also worry about what homeless people will do before and after lunch, when the cafe is not open: Where will they go to the bathroom? Will any try to camp out in any of V.M. Ybor's vacant homes?
Finally, residents don't like that they didn't learn about Trinity's plans until well after it bought the land.
"We feel like it's going to have a negative impact on our community, and the Trinity Cafe did not adequately address our concerns," neighborhood association president Kim Headland said. "They had no answers for what's going to happen the other 20 hours a day."
Trinity Cafe representatives met with the neighborhood association last week and say they don't expect their operation to create problems. The cafe serves an average of 200 free meals a day, five days a week, but in 2 1/2 years as program director, Cindy Davis said she has had to call the police only once about a client.
"Our experience has been that the guests we serve are extremely grateful and respectful," said Jeff Darrey, chairman of Trinity's board of directors.
Trinity paid $225,000 in June for about half an acre at a corner of N Nebraska Avenue and E 17th Avenue. It took a little more than a year to raise it.
Renovating and equipping the new property is expected to cost another $350,000. So far, Trinity has raised $50,000.
"Fundraising is kind of tough right now," Davis said.
Trinity looked at a lot of properties before finding one that met three criteria, Darrey said. The price had to be right, the zoning had to work and the location had to be on bus lines that could be used by clients and volunteers, who serve meals and act as hosts.
Still, Trinity applied for a waiver from city parking rules.
Rules typically would require the cafe to provide 52 parking spaces. But Trinity says its volunteers often carpool and most clients walk. A few ride bikes. A handful take the bus. Fewer than 1 percent arrive by car.
The cafe estimates it needs 25 to 28 parking spaces. It is seeking city approval for 38.
Residents oppose the waiver, partly because they worry that if a new owner bought the property, the smaller number of approved parking spaces could go to a business that needs a lot more parking.
But residents also wonder, why now?
Noting that Trinity's board of directors includes Ken Jones, the president of the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee for next year's Republican National Convention, they have questioned whether the move is meant to shift the homeless to a less-visible place before the convention.
It's not, Darrey said.
"This search started a couple of years ago, before there was even a hint" of the convention being here, he said.
Said Jones: "The decision to move Trinity Cafe has absolutely nothing to do with the Republican National Convention. Period."