As Hurricane Idalia churned up the gulf, Vicki Walker was driving around the streets of Tampa in her bright blue SUV, looking for homeless people to make sure they knew where the shelters were.
As minister of outreach at Tampa’s venerable yellow-brick Hyde Park United Methodist Church near downtown, Walker knows their names and calls them friends.
At the Wendy’s on Kennedy Boulevard, she spotted Randy Eagerton across the street at the bus stop. She ordered a burger, fries and chicken nuggets in the drive-thru and joined him on the bus bench. “We had a picnic,” Eagerton said, and he assured her he had a place to weather the storm.
After years of helping Tampa’s homeless population get haircuts, mail, dental work, hot meals and social service connections, Walker, 64, is retiring. On one of her last Sundays, in the bustle of more than 100 diners and volunteers inside the 124-year-old church on Platt Street, Byron Thompkins had his own news: “I’ve got a place of my own going soon,” he told her. He also was getting his truck driving license.
“Look at you,” said Walker, between shepherding people to a phone-charging station and finding a bandage for a homeless man’s battered finger. “I’m so proud of you.”
Once, when she got scratched trying to break up a fight outside, friends intervened. Not to Miss Vicki you don’t.
“God’s got his hand on her,” Robert Allen Doyle said over his plate of chicken and rice.
A conversation with Walker, a sort of urban Robin Hood, about the affluent church and the homeless who get help there. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So where are you from and how’d you land here?
Madisonville, Kentucky. My dad was a coal miner. My whole life I had a big lump of coal in my office to remind me of whence I came.
I was living in Ohio and had an experience ... I was thanking God for a sunset, and I heard a voice that said the sunsets will be more beautiful in Tampa.
And you had no connection to Tampa?
(At the Tampa United Methodist Center, she worked with the the Mayor’s Challenge Fund which helped people afford homes and renovations.) I was asked to come to Hyde Park and speak about our work there. And fell in love with it.
(She was a church member when the possibility of a job came up.) At first I said “I don’t want to work here, you’re my church and I love it. I don’t want to see the seamy underbelly.” I can tell you, there is no seamy underbelly.
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You joined the church staff 24 years ago. What was the homeless situation then compared to now?
I participate in the homeless count every year. I’ve seen the needs increase. We all feel the impact of the lack of affordable housing stock.
It’s a community problem that requires a community solution. But the safety net is wearing thin. We have families that come for a meal now. Before it was mostly men.
We’re in a rough place.
Tell me some of the things that have happened here at the church.
We have a bike repair shop. The guests work on each other’s bikes.
Hundreds of people get their mail here — birth certificates, Social Security cards. Around the holidays, people sometimes get cards and packages. I don’t know how (the volunteers) do it. It takes hours every week.
The haircuts (local stylists donate services) quit at COVID, but I think they’ll bounce back. It totally changes how people feel about themselves. You retain some dignity, some grace, some self-confidence.
We still provide free dental clinics twice a year. That’s open to the whole community.
We have people that bring dogs here every Sunday. Augie the doggy, he’s here every week. Watching people love on a dog and be loved by a dog — it’s beautiful.
That’s another thing I’m proud of. Hyde Park is known for a certain economic group. (But) if you’re dragging all your belongings in with you, come on in. You’re welcome.
Talk about the bags you make here for people to give to the homeless instead of money.
We call them manna bags. We put water and socks and a snack and some encouraging thing — it says “you are loved.” We sell them to the congregation for $5 and the money goes back in the pot for supplies. It’s a way to give something when you’re not sure what to give or what to do. People love socks.
OK, so should you give money to someone on a street corner?
I think that you have to trust your gut about what you’re supposed to do in that moment.
Generally I think money that goes to an organization that’s doing something for the overall problem is better. (Giving money directly), I think it creates dependence. Because tomorrow, when my money’s gone, what are you going to do then?
Do the homeless people you get to know sometimes disappear?
Yes. The beginning of COVID was really hard because I lost a couple of my favorites early on. One was found dead under the bridge over here. One was called Pirate.
I have a friend who’s been in housing for eight years and I think he’s about to lose it. That door sadly may be revolving the wrong way.
There’s a woman who comes to get her mail — she and her husband live in their van and you’d never know.
I’ve done funerals for people that live on the streets at this church. We’ve buried (the ashes of) people experiencing homelessness in our memorial garden.
I’ve told the coroner: If you have an unclaimed (person), we will bury them here.
Tell me a success story.
The woman Holly that called me this morning. She was in a wheelchair. She was positive, sweet, lively, and she would have died on the streets of Tampa. Her sister (in Michigan) kept calling. They wanted her to come home. She’s reunited with her family.
I don’t know why Holly was out there. She came down to Florida and it wasn’t all she hoped it would be.
What do you think of this moment in Tampa?
To say challenging is an understatement.
While I love seeing all the cranes and the growth, we’re also pushing out a segment of the population. And I don’t know where they’re supposed to go.
I think we need more private partners that are willing to make a difference.
What will you miss?
Every week, being shoulder to shoulder. The people. One hundred percent, the people.
That’s my lesson: Everyone’s got a story.