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Trinity Cafe's homeless clientele strains neighbors' compassion

A lunch line forms outside the Trinity Caf? at 2801 N Nebraska Ave in Tampa. A professional chef prepares meals for almost 300 homeless people every day. OCTAVIO JONES | Times 

Published May 31, 2016

TAMPA — The chain link fence separating his yard from the sidewalk is a recent addition to James Stephens' real estate office on Nebraska Avenue.

It went up soon after he caught homeless people using his yard as a bathroom. A garden hose is also permanently hooked up to wash urine off his porch.

Stephens' office is just one block from Trinity Cafe, a nonprofit operation in the V.M. Ybor neighborhood that has earned plaudits for providing almost 300 homeless people every day with meals prepared by a professional chef and served at tables with tablecloths, china dishes and silverware.

But neighbors say the cafe, which opened in April 2013, has become a magnet for the city's homeless and the trash, drunkenness and loitering they bring.

The result is an uneasy coexistence between the cafe and some neighbors whose compassion for the plight of the homeless has been replaced by exasperation at the problems on their doorsteps.

"It inundates one neighborhood, causing problems, and nothing is being solved," said Kelly Grimsdale, who lives two blocks from the cafe. "Why should they be helped at the expense of my quality of life?"

Along Nebraska Avenue, visible evidence of the rift comes from the green trespass notices that authorize police to evict homeless people from doorsteps and store entrances when the property owner is not present.

The signs hang in a barber shop, a Dollar Store and a laundromat. They're posted on a HART bus shelter and the front door of a nearby church where homeless people frequently sit on a small wall and drink alcohol.

Leaders of the cafe say they do everything they can to prevent problems. They avoid using disposable tableware that can end up as trash. They make restrooms available during meal times.

"We encourage people to leave our campus and not to loiter," said Cindy Davis, the cafe's program director. "Where are people supposed to go? It's a sad and inhumane situation."

• • •

With his shiny, custom HART badge and a walkie-talkie strung across his uniform white polo shirt, Tim Martin looks like a law enforcement officer.

His actual job title is road supervisor for Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, the county bus system.

But for several hours a day, Martin patrols bus shelters along Nebraska in a white HART SUV, ordering homeless people to move on. HART's Metro-Rapid service runs right past Trinity Cafe. The service's modern, green shelters with their metal benches are a tempting place for homeless people to rest, prompting HART to post no-trespass notices.

An older man with gray hair and an unkempt beard offered no resistance beyond a hateful stare when Martin ordered him out of a shelter near a corner at Nebraska Avenue and East Columbus Drive.

"He'll be back as soon as I pull away," Martin said. "It's got worse since Trinity Cafe. It's constant — all day long."

Around 1,800 people are homeless across Hillsborough County, down about 6 percent from last year, according to an annual survey conducted by the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative.

The survey, released last week, found that many homeless people suffer from mental illness or substance abuse. Others are veterans or victims of domestic violence.

The number of arrests hasn't risen in the V.M. Ybor neighborhood since the opening of Trinity Cafe, said Tampa police Officer Dan McDonald, who heads the department's homeless liaison unit for Ybor City, V.M .Ybor and downtown.

In fact, arrests for typical homeless offenses, such as panhandling, public urination and sleeping in the right of way, fell from 30 in 2014 to 19 in 2015, department figures show.

• • •

A long line stretches outside Trinity Cafe a full hour before it opens for lunch.

Close to the front, Ryan Brooks uses a small hand towel to fan his 6-month-old daughter Jasmine, who is in a stroller. His wife, Cindy Brooks, waits next to him. She is six months pregnant.

The family lived in Brandon until they became homeless about three months ago. They slept in the family car for a couple of months until it was repossessed.

They are on waiting lists for shelter with the Salvation Army and Metropolitan Ministries. They walked about 25 minutes from the Good Samaritan Inn, a cheap rooming house on Florida Avenue, to get a meal.

"We didn't eat breakfast, so we wanted to try and make it today," Ryan Brooks said.

The cafe is the only place within walking distance where the homeless can get a full meal, said Mike Anders, who said he became homeless 20 years ago after his parents threw him out of their home when he was arrested at age 18.

Now 38, Anders receives a disability allowance because of an injury to his back. He sleeps at the top of the ramp under the Interstate 275 overpass.

The menu at the cafe on a recent Tuesday was tomato and basil soup, followed by chicken stuffed with spinach and served with vegetables.

For most of the diners, it will be their only meal of the day, Anders said.

He bristles when told some people object to having homeless people in their neighborhood.

"What are we supposed to do out here when you can't get off the street?"

• • •

As she drives around her neighborhood, Grimsdale often calls the Tampa police nonemergency number to report homeless people loitering or drinking in the street. The number is in her mobile phone contacts.

During one call, she reports a group sitting in an alleyway close to Mitchell Avenue and two people sleeping in a bus shelter.

The neighborhood is not a priority for city police, she said. She wants more enforcement of the trespass notices and tighter regulations so a soup kitchen cannot open in a residential neighborhood.

Until 2013, the cafe operated out of a space inside the Salvation Army center on North Florida Avenue. V.M. Ybor residents protested loudly to council members in 2011 when the nonprofit paid $225,000 for the half-acre site it now occupies.

A mostly working-class neighborhood of about 800 homes, V.M. Ybor has seen some gentrification in recent years with residents buying and restoring bungalows. But, there are still rundown homes and also cheap rooming houses where tenants, including sexual offenders, sleep on bunkbeds in shared rooms.

Stephens, who owns the real estate office on Nebraska, said he has to call the police about three times a month when he finds homeless people on his property.

It shouldn't be up to the neighborhood to deal with the homeless problem, he said.

"That's what the mayor needs to figure out."

Davis, the program director at Trinity, knows the cafe is unpopular with some people in the community, but her sympathies lie with those it serves.

"Hunger doesn't take a holiday," she said. "There are people hungry every day."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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