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Carlton: A place for the hungry and the neighborhood dealing with it: the dilemma of Trinity Cafe

A lunch line forms recently outside of Trinity Cafe, a nonprofit organization that provides meals for those in need. The cafe on Nebraska Avenue in Tampa serves up 300 meals during the week. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times] 
Published Jun. 8, 2016

Even a tropical storm did not slow the hungry making their way to Trinity Cafe.

Ragged and bowed under backpacks, the lucky ones held half-sprung umbrellas or wore cheap plastic ponchos against this week's spitting sky. They started gathering outside the squat building on an ugly Tampa street hours before the midday meal would be served, leaning in to the warm inside smells of baking chicken and hot, spicy soup.

This place is a savior. It's also a problem for the neighborhood in which it sits. This is a city's dilemma under the radar — much like the population served by Trinity Cafe.

But start with this: If you happen to believe in the high concept of God's work, this is probably close. Anyone who shows up hungry gets a free hot meal served at a table with conversation and iced tea tumblers always refilled. Aproned volunteers juggle steaming trays and talk with people they would never have otherwise met. Close to 300 show up daily — men, women and sometimes kids.

Trinity Cafe faces hardscrabble Nebraska Avenue. Behind it is a neighborhood called V.M. Ybor, just north of the Ybor most people know. It's a scrappy community of historic bungalows now burglar-barred, with others restored to glory, an old city neighborhood with good bones. This is not high-end South Tampa, to be sure, or even the nearby Heights neighborhoods flourishing lately, but a place with promise.

Neighbors say the cafe's clientele can mean washing urine off your porch and sometimes discovering trash and worse in your yard. It can mean people hanging out and drinking on your streets. Maybe you could argue this was already an urban core neighborhood before Trinity moved in, but seriously, would you want this in your back yard?

And so the dilemma: a place doing nothing but good, and some neighbors suffering for it.

The problem is what happens on surrounding streets after Trinity closes up shop and some of its patrons wander, says Tampa City Council member Frank Reddick, whose V.M. Ybor constituents regularly send him photo evidence of garbage and even feces. "Trinity has done just about anything they can do to clean up the place," he says. "But it's difficult once they stop feeding people.

"They have tried to work with the neighborhood," Reddick said. "It's just an ongoing problem."

Mandy Cloninger, Trinity's executive director, says it's a problem in need of communitywide answers.

As in — and as always, when we're talking about the thorny problem of homelessness — housing.

And paying for it.

Here is her math: One thousand beds available here nightly still leave 800 people unsheltered. If it costs $40,000 to provide a homeless person with a place to live, it's two to three times that for emergency room health care, plus police, jail and court costs.

Meanwhile, one in seven people go hungry and one in four are kids. The shelves at Trinity that quickly empty of donated children's books are proof of this.

The cafe tries to be a good neighbor. Diners are asked to leave the area after their meal. Volunteers clean up the property and surrounding area, and every second Saturday of the month, they do a neighborhood cleanup. And beyond just feeding people, Trinity brings in services to help them connect to jobs and mental health care, among other things.

The answer? "I wish I knew," sighs program director Cindy Davis.

This was interesting: Cloninger says she welcomes a day when shelters, soup kitchens and places like this can close. Because if there wasn't so much need out there, there wouldn't be long lines of the homeless and hungry waiting at the doors to Trinity Cafe.

Contact Sue Carlton at carlton@tampabay.com.

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