It's known, perhaps appropriately, as Church Park, a "small, wooded, neighborhood park fully shaded by oak trees that provides an excellent atmosphere for picnics," the Hillsborough County website notes.
You could easily overlook the postage-stamp-sized parcel in northwest Tampa. The turn from the road, even after several passes, is hard to find. There are no paved areas or parking spaces. The trees there must be 100 years old, and it is apparent that the park suffers from budget cuts.
On weekends Church Park is filled with neighborhood children, but on Tuesday afternoons it is frequented by mostly middle-aged ladies, members of a group who call themselves "Out of the Box." Lunch is served to the homeless men and women who are able to walk, ride a bike or take a bus to the park. As one of the middle-aged ladies in the group, I was hesitant to take on the responsibilities of providing a hot meal and an encouraging word to the down and out. Looking back on the decision to begin this little outreach, we were naive about the needs of the community. We did not realize the commitment. It would have been so much easier to occasionally visit a convalescent home or volunteer to help a children's ministry, and to be honest, I had thought it would be more rewarding.
Before taking part in "Tuesdays at the Park," I had thought that homelessness was a choice, the inability to live within the confines of society. I had no idea how wrong I could be. Illness, the economy, addiction and mental illness are many of the triggers, but the need to live in the great outdoors is never the impetus. All want a place to live. I also underestimated the need to connect, form relationships and feel like someone cares.
We see the regulars every week. Lessey, a diabetic, is friendly and upbeat. He loves to pour chili over corn bread and calls us "his girls." John is street-weathered and looks older than his father, who sometimes drops him off. When the weather was frigid, I crocheted Tom a fuzzy gray hat. When he put it on I felt like a child who had just given her dad a handmade clay paperweight for Christmas. David is tall and gruff and never smiles. We don't know too much about him, but we do know that we had better bring salt or he will not eat. Hector is one of the younger men in our crowd who can remember everyone's name, a skill that I envy. I notice that his hand shakes when he holds my hand as we gather in a circle to say grace before the meal.
There are couples, too. John and Sherrie are on again, off again but clearly adore each other. Imagine relationship issues compounded by homelessness. And Tom ("Blue Eyes") and his wife, Sue. Blue Eyes is a handsome older gentleman whose azure eyes are as striking as his silver white hair. When I ask Blue Eyes if he wants seconds, he politely refuses and tells me that he is "watching his figure" so he can look as good as me (a lie). He tells me proudly that he is getting his wife dentures so she can feel beautiful again. He just needs to wait for his next check.
Everyone has a story, and some are heartbreakingly sad. We don't like to ask too many questions or intrude on their privacy. In spite of their circumstances, they still have their pride. From week to week, there are new faces and more names to remember. (Thank goodness for Hector.) It is a daunting task to keep up with the needs of our park friends, and yes, it is sometimes a burden to plan a meal and haul it to the park. It is difficult to get outside support. In a bad economy, there are many other worthy causes.
It is also hard to garner support for people who most think can't be helped. But that is where I think most of us get it wrong. Caring for someone who has nothing to give in return challenges our motives and defines our true intentions. It tests our capacity to connect with people outside our comfort zone.
We may not solve the problems of the homeless, but for a few hours each week we can turn a tiny park into an "excellent atmosphere for picnics."
JoAnn Morgan is a stay-at-home mom who lives in Tampa.