TAMPA — Leander Oates picked the wrong time to change jobs.
A cook at a Waffle House in Orlando, he rode a Greyhound bus to Tampa in late February to work the same job here. That was until the restaurant switched to take-out only and he was laid off.
Unable to afford an apartment, he was homeless until a Tampa policeman gave him a ride to Hillsborough Hope, a new emergency homeless shelter comprised of 100 tents.
“This can happen to anyone,” Oates said.
Less than two days after it opened, the Tampa shelter was full Tuesday morning. Since then dozens more have turned up hoping to be admitted, as the number of homeless in Hillsborough has been swelled by people out of work because of the coronavirus shutdown.
“It filled up so quick, I could easily have done 200 beds and it would be full,” said Maggie Rogers, executive director of Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg, which is being paid $120,000 by the city of Tampa to run the shelter for 30 days.
Men occupy most of the shelter’s tents, but there are 15 women living there. About 40 percent of the people are 55 and older.
The nonprofit does not plan to put their guests back on the street once the pandemic is over, Rogers said. By next week, a group of case managers will interview the residents and assess how they can be permanently housed. It is looking for a site to set up a permanent Hillsborough Hope that provides both real housing and tent accommodation as it does at its Pinellas counterpart.
There have been a few problems. A mobile laundromat is still in Washington, D.C., and was only loaded onto a truck Thursday. It should arrive by the weekend. And strong winds blew some tents around until workers weighed then down with bricks.
Caspers Company, one of the largest franchisees of McDonald’s, is providing breakfast twice a week but the shelter is in need of more breakfast items like muffins and fresh fruit, Rogers said.
Around 1 p.m. Thursday, the shelter was quiet. A few men sat in the shade of a canopy talking while their cellphones charged. Some napped in their tents.
Workers from Catholic Charities spooned chicken parmigiana, rice and broccoli onto paper plates for a handful of men and women having a late lunch. The meal was cooked and donated by Trinty Café, a kitchen and dining room for low-income and homeless people run by Feeding Tampa Bay.
Tim Gainer ate his lunch on a trestle table in an area shaded by half a dozen canopies.
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A certified boat mechanic from Nashville, he ended up on the street after he turned to alcohol to deal with the breakup of his marriage.
He ended up in Wesley Chapel after getting a job with a traveling fair that toured the Southeast. But he was laid off when it closed because of the coronavirus.
The owner gave him $100 and offered to drive him to Tampa to get the bus back to Nashville. When he got inside the bus station, he found out the fare was $139.
He barely made it into the shelter Tuesday morning as it filled up. That night in tent No. 47 was his first time on a mattress in three weeks, he said.
“I’m 55 and this ain’t me,” he said. “Once you get down this low, it’s so hard to claw your way back up.”
Catholic Charities is seeking donations to help run the emergency shelter in Tampa.
- To donate cash, go to ccdosp.org/covid19 or text “novelcorona” to 91999. You can send checks to 1213 16th Street N., St. Petersburg, FL 33705
- In-kind donations of prepared/grab ‘n go foods-meals; water & energy drinks bottles/pouches; snack bags/pouches can be dropped off at 2021 E. Busch Blvd., Tampa, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
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