In 2009, bilingual Christian recording artist Leonardo Villanueva chose to spend four nights as a homeless person in downtown Tampa. He did it to understand, if only somewhat, what people without shelter experience every day. He documented the venture on YouTube, receiving both praise and criticism.
On Saturday, Villanueva will perform a concert to benefit Trinity Café 2, which opens Monday in north Tampa. The establishment, an expansion of Trinity Café on Nebraska Avenue near downtown, will serve the hungry and homeless from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. weekdays at First Church of God, 2202 E Busch Blvd.
Villanueva will perform at 7 p.m. Saturday at First United Methodist Church of Lutz, 960 W Lutz-Lake Fern Road, with proceeds going to the Café.
I spoke to him about his undercover homeless experience.
Tell me about your background working to help the homeless and hungry.
I've had a heart for the homeless since I was in college. I can remember grabbing a bite in between classes at USF, and if I saw a homeless guy down Fowler Avenue, I would stop and get out of the car and ask how I could help. Sometimes I would give the person money, but most times I would cross the street and grab the person a burger.
It's just something I saw my dad doing a few times when I was little. One time he gave a homeless man a ride and sat down to have lunch with him at a restaurant. I remember this guy gulping down this steaming-hot bowl of soup and me wondering if his mouth wasn't getting burned. He was that hungry. One time I did the same thing — while on break from performing at a Baptist Convention in Daytona, I took this homeless guy (Rick) to a fast-food establishment, but they wouldn't serve him. I was in a suit and tie and I insisted he was my guest, so we were finally able to sit down and eat. Then I took him inside the convention filled with Baptist pastors to try to get him help from a local church.
I could go on and on with stories. But through it all, I kept having this crazy thought, this voice inside of me would say: "Well that was easy, to hand out a $5 bill, but you'll never know what it really feels like unless you walk in their shoes."
I finally made the decision in the summer of 2009 to go out there and become one of them and experience what it's really like, even if for only a few days. People questioned my sanity and even called me hypocritical because I knew I was going back home in a few days, but I'll tell you what, because I dove into that experience, I have a greater understanding now about the reality of that situation.
What does it mean that you went undercover?
I was dropped off in downtown with nothing other than the clothes I was wearing and a backpack with an old sleeping bag, my Bible and my state photo ID. No money. I never told anyone who I really was. Only told them I was a musician.
What did you experience?
Being out in the summer heat with no cover and how it will quickly wear you out and dehydrate you and make you sick. Getting wet from the rain and having to spend the rest of the day or night with soaked clothes. Getting looks and people moving out of my way as I walked down the sidewalk. Trying to find a place to go to the bathroom and knowing I could get arrested if I didn't. Going to the Tampa police station to drink water from their water fountain. Figuring out where my next meal would come from (that's where Trinity Café came in providing a meal). Spending the night sleeping, or trying to, out in the street by the steps of the Sacred Heart Cathedral. Being in line for three hours so I could try to get a bed at the Salvation Army shelter. Meeting real homeless people and hearing their stories of how they became homeless, most of them not by choice as commonly believed. Hearing about their frustration and depression because no one would give them work because they didn't have an address or phone number.
I met a young African-American man who would sleep in his suit at the shelter and would wake up every morning at 5 a.m. to begin walking and taking various buses to apply to different jobs.
Why is this an important cause people need to pay attention to?
What has always caught my attention about this problem is that these people lack the most basic human needs in a civilized society: shelter and food. Probably the scariest and most eye-opening realization out of this experience was that, once you're in this type of situation, it is nearly impossible to get out of that cycle, barring a miracle. And also the realization that, according to their stories, any of us are just one bad day away from losing it all. These people had homes and jobs and money and happiness and family at one point just like any of us.
Since any of us can be at the bottom at any point, it is our responsibility to help those in need while we're on top and able to. That became my life theme.
What are your thoughts on Trinity Café 2?
Trinity Café 2 is a daily oasis in the middle of a vast desert for these folks. I always refer to them as angels. That's what they (Trinity Café) were to me during my most basic need during those homeless days. These volunteers are doing the same, day in and day out for thousands of needy and hungry people every year.
How do you hope it will help the community?
We need to help them help others through our financial contributions so that they can continue this labor of love.
I like to help organizations like this because, as an individual, my power and reach is limited, but through them it is magnified and maximized.
What will your performance include?
The benefit concert will be a fun evening of high caliber musical entertainment that will inspire you. Admission is free, but our hope is that you will come prepared with your wallet and checkbooks to show compassion and support the worthy cause of this organization.
Contact Sarah Whitman at firstname.lastname@example.org.