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Tampa daytime shelter for homeless fills well of need

TAMPA — Arthur Scott, 61, squats amid a field of handlebars, pedals and tires. His glasses slip down his nose as he tries to straighten the spokes on a twisted bike wheel.

Around him, a dozen or so guests help assemble bikes that will be distributed to the city's homeless at the Well, a daytime shelter just north of downtown.

For Scott, who hasn't had a permanent residence since he broke his ankle in January and could no longer work, it's a way of giving back. It's a chance to help a group that has welcomed, sheltered and fed him for the past six months.

"You don't feel like you're worthless here," Scott said.

Scott is one of about 400 people served each week at the Well. A team of volunteers and part-time staffers run the nine-room operation.

There's a free market where folks pick up food and supplies. There's a shower and a big outdoor space to host community meals. But perhaps most importantly, there is a family room where people who live outdoors can escape the elements, even if just for a few hours.

During the deluges earlier this month, the Well stayed open late to give the people they serve a little extra reprieve from the rain.

"It's hard to keep important papers like birth certificates safe when you're soaked," said executive director Jon Dengler, 35.

While the Well has sat in its current location for only a year, Dengler spawned the idea nearly two decades ago after he suffered a severe head-on auto collison his senior year of high school. He spent most of the school year on a ventilator with his jaw wired shut. When he finally returned to Gaither High School he had to use a wheelchair.

It was the first time he realized how blind he had been to the suffering of others.

"There were all these people I had never seen or noticed at the school living with difficulties, and in many ways they were invisible to other students," he said. "I remember feeling like I had become one of them. It was heavy."

He went to college at the University of South Florida, turning to drugs to cope with the mental and physical aftermath of his accident. Then one night he said he had a religious experience in which he felt he learned why he had endured the accident and was suffering so.

"It was a way to wake me up to the pain of others," he said. "And to know pain in a way that could give me the empathy to help people who were suffering."

The experience shook him up. He stopped using drugs. He switched his major to religious studies and joined a Bible study where he befriended a community of people dedicated to putting the book's lessons into action.

Through their work, they learned there was no place for the homeless to get a meal on Thursday nights in the downtown area. You could say that's when the Well formally began.

Dengler and his friends partnered with Metropolitan Ministries to open a Thursday meal site near Ybor Heights. But there was always the feeling they needed to do something more.

"We wanted to use a meal site to create a common ground for people to really get to know each other," said Jon Sanders, 34, one of the Well's original volunteers. "If we can connect middle and upper class people with the poor to develop real relationships, that's how real change can happen."

They bounced around for a few years before finding their current home near the corner of Florida and Floribraska Avenues. After securing enough pledges, they were able to move in on Memorial Day weekend 2014.

The Well recently earned non-profit status. The group's annual operating budget is $112,000, funded mostly through private donations. Their next mission is to work on a place for housing and nighttime shelter.

The Well still serves its Thursday night meal. Donya Frazier, Metropolitan Ministries manager of community partners, attended a recent dinner.

About 60 people were there, she said. A tent covered the table. Candles illuminated the scene. Volunteers checked in on diners, refilling their drinks and bringing extra napkins.

"It's a very nice dinner for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless," she said. "Just because they are less fortunate than us, they can still go to a restaurant."

Contact Helen Anne Travis at Follow her @helen_anne.