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Volunteers stay home, adding to struggles for food and shelter among the poor

The COVID-19 pandemic is leaving agencies with fewer resources at a time when more people are likely to seek help.
Jim Tripham uses hand sanitizer before eating lunch at Trinity Café in Tampa on Friday. Feeding Tampa Bay is planning to send food trucks to replace community food pantries that may close if they can't find enough volunteers.
Jim Tripham uses hand sanitizer before eating lunch at Trinity Café in Tampa on Friday. Feeding Tampa Bay is planning to send food trucks to replace community food pantries that may close if they can't find enough volunteers. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Mar. 14, 2020
Updated Mar. 14, 2020

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TAMPA — Kevin Cosme doesn’t have a TV or a cell phone, but he’s heard talk about a disease that’s got people concerned.

Homeless for the past 10 years, Cosme sat Thursday evening under a cinderblock shelter at Borrell Park on Nebraska Avenue with about a dozen other men and women. Some passed around a clove cigarette.

He wasn’t familiar with the term “coronavirus,” or how it spreads. Even if he wanted to wash his hands more often, gas station attendants usually throw him out before he can reach the bathroom, he said.

“It makes me worried a lot,” he said. “I don’t know how to try and fight it.”

Kevin Cosme has been homeless for about 10 years. He said he is worried about the coronavirus but not sure what to do about it.
Kevin Cosme has been homeless for about 10 years. He said he is worried about the coronavirus but not sure what to do about it. [ CHRISTOPHER O'DONNELL | Times ]

Cosme’s one regular meal comes from Trinity Café, a food kitchen run by Feeding Tampa Bay. The nonprofit serves about 500 people every day in two Tampa locations.

But like every other sector of the U.S. economy, nonprofits worry about service interruptions in the face of a global pandemic. And if they fail to provide food, shelter and other essential services, those who rely on them have nowhere else to turn.

Among the challenges: State warnings against large gatherings could force places like Trinity Café to close their doors and move food programs to the street.

The Feed the Bay event, run by Tampa Bay churches was postponed this weekend because of the recommendation against large gatherings. The event was expected to serve about 150,000 pounds of food.

Fear of coronavirus infection, meantime, is causing nonprofits to lose volunteers, especially older people and those with compromised immune systems.

Feeding Tampa Bay lost an estimated 40 percent of its volunteers in the days since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency, said executive director Thomas Mantz. The nonprofit provides food to about 500 community groups across a 10-county area.

Meals on Wheels of Tampa has also seen a decline in volunteers. For many of the nonprofit’s clients, the meal they receive is the only food they eat each day.

As the pandemic escalates, the strain felt by depleted nonprofits is likely to increase, Mantz warned.

When schools are closed, he wants to send food trucks into neighborhoods for children who rely on school meals. He would also like to feed hundreds of hourly paid workers who will lose income from the closure of sports stadiums and theme parks. And he expects food pantries will close or reduce services if they lose more volunteers.

Feeding Tampa Bay is stockpiling hygiene and cleaning products to distribute to low-income families and is expanding its hot meal service to seniors and others who need to avoid group dining rooms in assisted living and senior housing centers.

But the challenge a pandemic poses is unique, Mantz said: Unlike hurricanes and other emergencies that are largely localized, communities won’t be able to look to other states for help.

“And so we’re going to need our community to step up much more,” he said, "because we can’t draw extra food from outside of our area and we can’t get more volunteer support or other support from outside our area.”

Trinity Café sous chef Marvin Brown prepares chicken Alfredo for patrons in Tampa on Friday.
Trinity Café sous chef Marvin Brown prepares chicken Alfredo for patrons in Tampa on Friday. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

***

About 250 people who are homeless or struggling to put food on the table waited to eat Friday at Trinity Café.

On the menu was chicken Alfredo, buttered green beans and salad.

Once Hillsborough announced its first cases of coronavirus, servers started wearing gloves. Disinfectant has replaced Windex to clean glass tabletops. Diners were asked to pump sanitizer from a family-size bottle before entering.

Michelle Hernandez shared most of her plate with her fiancé Richard Sanford.

On disability her whole adult life because of severe dyslexia, Hernandez became homeless about 10 years ago. Her mother died when she was 8, and she was unable to stay with her father as an adult.

Her four children are in foster care. She sleeps in a nearby park with few possessions — mostly clothes, books, and a cellphone that died weeks ago.

“If we didn’t have this, we wouldn’t eat,” she said as she ate her meal.

Michelle Hernandez, left, and Richard Sanford wait outside Trinity Café in Tampa for their one regular daily meal.
Michelle Hernandez, left, and Richard Sanford wait outside Trinity Café in Tampa for their one regular daily meal. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

She’s heard people talking about the coronavirus and wants to protect herself. But she said the sink in the café restroom is the only opportunity she has to wash her hands each day.

The talk she has heard about the pandemic has only added to the feeling that things are stacked against her.

“I’m sick now; I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said. “I have to keep going,”

Feeding Tampa Bay officials know the café is a gathering point where the virus could spread. Mantz said operators follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Only about 70 people are seated at one time. The CDC defines a large gathering as 1,000 or more; some local rules say 250.

Still, Mantz said, change could come if the number of infected people climbs. The operation would move outdoors. But he insists that meals will be served.

Related: Mass gatherings in Florida should be postponed to stop coronavirus spread, DeSantis says

On Friday, Trinity’s parent organization supplied volunteers to serve lunch. Some regular volunteers have been told by their employers to stay away, Mantz said.

Among those sticking it out is Louie Sullivan.

At 75, he is more vulnerable to the coronavirus, according to health experts. Nonetheless, the Carrollwood man occasionally embraced those arriving for food.

Throughout a two-hour shift Friday, he used about eight pairs of rubber gloves. He’s heard about the risks of the virus but said the work he does is too important to walk away from.

“What are you going to do? These people have to eat."

Volunteer Louie Sullivan, 75, center, talks with Trisha English, left, and her fianće Christian Tackett during lunch Friday at Trinity Café in Tampa. Sullivan has heard about the health risks of the coronavirus but he plans to keep helping anyway.
Volunteer Louie Sullivan, 75, center, talks with Trisha English, left, and her fianće Christian Tackett during lunch Friday at Trinity Café in Tampa. Sullivan has heard about the health risks of the coronavirus but he plans to keep helping anyway. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Meals on Wheels of Tampa relies on volunteers to deliver hot meals to 1,880 people in Hillsborough County each day.

“The people we serve are homebound, so they’re pretty much quarantined already, but retaining the volunteers has been a problem,” said Steve King, the program’s executive director. "I think we’re all still trying to figure out what we’re going to do as we learn more and see what happens.”

The group’s parent organization, Meals on Wheels America, is urging the federal government to provide supplemental funding for nutrition programs.

The CDC advised homeless shelters to put up flyers about the importance of hygiene and the need to self-isolate if you show symptoms. But many homeless have mental health issues. It’s unclear how many are heeding the guidance.

About 110 mostly homeless people sleep at the Salvation Army shelter on Florida Avenue each night.

The shelter now screens people who arrive every evening through a list of questions. Staffers have also been trained to spot symptoms, said Capt. Andy Miller, the group’s Tampa area commander.

“There’s been hard times in the past; we want to serve people in this time," Miller said. “One way we do that is by keeping them safe.”

Other nonprofits are also scrambling in response to the pandemic.

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg wants to establish a response fund for residents who meet the criteria to be quarantined but cannot afford to miss work. About one in four families lack the savings to handle a $400 emergency, said president and chief executive Randall H. Russell.

“How do we support those people who don’t have money for food or rent?” Russell said. “It’s still unfolding, and we have so few cases in Pinellas. But we know they’re coming.”

Public housing agencies also are taking steps to protect tenants, especially older ones.

The Tampa Housing Authority has limited visitors to Palm Terrace, an assisted living center, and to J.L. Young Apartments, a community for older people. The authority told employees to stay at home if they are sick. Community events in the Reed at Ella, another senior housing complex, were canceled as of Friday and maintenance teams have been wiping down elevators and doorknobs.

In St. Petersburg, the housing authority closed its offices in Jordan Park and Disston Place to minimize contact with the public, said LaShunda Battle, interim chief executive officer.

Still, people like Monica Hendrichs are left to navigate the crisis by themselves.

Hendrichs, 48, applied for disability because of liver failure. She lives with her boyfriend in a Seminole Heights house that is rent free because it has no water. An extension cord from a neighbor’s house powers her TV.

Asked if she was worried about the virus, she said “No,” and pointed to the sky.

“The man above watches me,” she said. “I ain’t got nothing to worry about.”

Staff writer Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report.

Help during the coronavirus:

To find a food pantry, go to feedingtampabay.org

For housing and emergency food assistance call (813) 219-1000 or go to metromin.org

For other assistance call 211 or go to 211.org

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: The latest and all your questions answered.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

STOCK UP YOUR PANTRY: Foods that should always be in your kitchen, for emergencies and everyday life.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

OTHER CORONAVIRUS WEBSITES:

CDC

Florida Department of Health

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